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This 2-hour long animated film was directed by Makoto Shinkai, whose other famous works include 5 Centimeters per Second, The Place Promised in our Early Days and The Garden of Words. Although this film has not racked up as much fame as 5 Centimeters per Second, it is certainly still one of his better-known works. The story centers around the experiences of a girl named Asuna. Her father passed away when she was young, and he had given her a radio receiver as a memento. When she turns it on, she hears a mysterious melody that calls out to her.

Then, one day a strange boy named Shun appears and saves her from being attacked by a bear-like monster. They quickly become friends when Asuna treats Shun’s wound. He tells her that he is from a far away country called Agartha. However, their brief friendship ends suddenly when Shun’s body is found in the river below the mountain. The next day, a substitute teacher for their class, Mr. Morisaki, mentions the mythical land known as Agartha, where the dead can be brought back from the living.

On her way back home from school, Asuna runs into a boy whose appearance is similar to Shun. They are then attacked by three armed soldiers who appear to be after a crystal in the boy’s possession, which opens the portal to the underworld of Agartha. One of the soldiers reveals himself as Morisaki, and his goal is to gain access to this world in order to revive his lost wife. The boy also reveals himself as Shin, the brother of Shun. Shin disappears into the world of Agartha, after telling Asuna and Morisaki that they could do as they wish. The pair decides to venture into the mysterious world of Agartha, and so the adventure begins.

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This is a tale that teaches children how to say goodbye to their loved ones. The main characters Asuna, Shin, and Morisaki have all lost someone dear to them. As the story progresses, each of them learn about the importance of letting go of their grief and embracing their new life. This theme was first introduced when we learn about the death of Asuna’s father, and from this point on, it is reflected in almost every notable character who appears in the film. The story portrays the loss of one’s parent, sibling, spouse, child, and pet. The characters then have to deal with the loss of their loved ones; yet, not all the characters deal with loss in the best manner. Those who are left behind must learn to overcome their grief and continue to live on with happiness – the ultimately wish of those who passed away.

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Ashitaka from Princess Mononoke

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Shin from Children Who Chase Lost Voices From Deep Below

This film shares crucial resemblances to Studio Ghibli. You could almost believe that Miyasaki produced this film if you had skipped the introduction. The most notable similarities are the classic Ghibli-like appearances of the characters and the setting in a magical land. In particular, Shin shares astonishing resemblances with Ashitaka of Princess Mononoke. Both of them ride an unusual mount (a deer and a donkey), both of them cut their hair into similar styles before leaving on their missions, and both of them are often portrayed with serious and determined expressions. Under the weight of such evidence, it is easy to extrapolate that Shin was inspired by Miyazaki’s Ashitaka. Near the end of the film, when Asuna and Shin fall down a waterfall hand-in-hand, their exact expressions match those of the faces from many pairs of boys and girls before them, many times over, in Princess Mononoke, Laputa: Castle in the Sky, Howl’s Moving Castle and Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind. Besides the characters’ physical appearances, there is also the matter of the setting. The Quetzalcoatls of Agartha are very similar to creatures living in Princess Mononoke’s forest, and these Quetzalcoatls have also been defiled by man’s pollution of earth. The last Quetzalcoatl we meet is essentially a giant robot from Laputa with a missing arm. Moreover, Asuna’s Mimi is a near-perfect reincarnation of Nausicaa’s fox-squirrel Teto. Are these similarities merely coincidences? Shinkai answered this question when he stated that as an animated film director, he is most inspired by the works of Miyazaki. As such, it’s safe to assume that this film was a tribute to the animation legend. While some might find this obvious imitation of Miyazaki’s work unsettling, I personally enjoyed the magical ride like I would enjoy any other Miyazaki adventure.
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In this waterfall scene, Asuna and Shin have expressions similar to those of other Ghibli characters

Yet this film was not a complete plagiarism of Studio Ghibli, since Shinkai added elements to make the film his own. His natural illustration of clouds, breathtaking panoramic views and the mastery of using light and shadow effects are what makes this film unique. In many instances, the beauty of the scenes is so exquisite that I longed to be sucked right into the screen and observe it for an eternity. Shinkai has always been the master of visual appeal. One only has to watch The Garden of Words to understand why he deserves the title. The scenery within his works are, to say the least, more realistic than reality itself.

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Breathtaking visual effects throughout the film

Nevertheless, this film is not without its flaws, and there are some very obvious ones I should mention. The main issue I had with this film is the illogical motivation of the characters. Asuna seems to be unsure of many of her own actions, such as doubting herself at the entrance of Agartha. It appears that Morisaki’s strong motivation to save his wife is the main driving force for the plot, and he seems to be merely dragging Asuna along. However, there is almost no reason for him to do so. If anything, Asuna’s self-doubts would only be a hindrance during the journey. Throughout the story, one can’t help but wonder what motivation Asuna has to enter Agartha. The answer given later in the film is hardly adequate to justify such a life-and-death adventure into a foreign land. The film also contains unnecessary scenes which appear to serve absolutely no purpose except to extend the time to the 2-hour limit. Another irritating point is that there is little development of the story behind Asuna’s father. It is hinted that he might be an Agarthan, but I would have liked to see more of the backstory on how he ended up in the world above with Asuna’s mother. In fact, when Asuna first entered Agartha, I was certain that she would eventually discover her heritage, only to be disappointed by the end.

Although this film certainly has its faults, I still enjoyed it for its insightful exploration into the theme of grieving a loved one, presenting us with a near-perfect imitation of Studio Ghibli and, most of all, its stunning visual effects. While the plot could still benefit from further improvements, it definitely contains more substance than Shinkai’s other works. Since this work contains the best of both Miyazaki and Shinkai, I would recommend it to those who are devoted fans to either of these giants of the animation world, and those who simply wish to be taken on a magical ride to a mysterious land.

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