Hoshi o Ou Kodomo features a young and largely independent girl named Asuna. She is usually on her own throughout much of the day as her mother works nights and her dad passed away when she was a toddler. She has her own spot out in the woods where she collects things and stores food, high up so she can listen to a small receiver for, well, anything. The day she finally hears something a boy named Shun arrives and eventually saves her from a monster. Almost as fast as he appears, Shun is discovered dead in the river but Asuna simply can’t believe it. Around the same time she meets a new substitute teacher at her school named Mr. Morisaki, who is clearly interested in Shun and wherever he came from. Asuna meets another boy named Shin, Shun’s brother, and learns that he’s from a realm underneath the earth called Agartha. Asuna, Morisaki, and Shin each make it down to Agartha where magic exists and the power to bring people back to life awaits as the narrative continues to unfold to an epic state. And that’s all in the first act! Shinkai really wanted to flesh out the storyline, separating his newest work even further in scale from his previous films.
It’s so striking to see Shinkai attempt telling a story that is different from the projects he has done in the past. Taking his work into the genre of fantasy was always interesting from the project’s announcement. It was time for something new, and he certainly delivers on that scale. By taking Asuna, Morisaki, and Shin into an underground world, Shinkai had the ability to create whatever came to his imagination. When you go to a setting like that, you as the creator have the responsibility to do whatever you want. You can ignore physics, the laws of nature, and anything else your heart desires. But with that creative control comes a responsibility to tell a story, and I believe that Shinkai has done that successfully with his characters. Asuna struggles with the death of Shun and the short but large impact that he had on her life, and Morisaki is a man who is controlled by his own desires. Shin is conflicted with the death of his brother and the laws of Agartha. The theme of bringing back someone from the dead has been seen in countless works of the past, but Shinkai is able to tell his unique take on the event through these characters.
Hoshi o Ou Kodomo is different from Shinkai’s previous works, reflected in not only story but technical design as well. There are fewer of the “default background image” landscapes that are found in other films, but in a way this technical merit has been softly kneaded into every frame. There are still those amazing views of the stars to behold, but I think Shinkai has found a way to blend the most gorgeous scenery of his previous films to a toned down experience. This is not a bad thing because it’s completely required for the kind of film that Hoshi o Ou Kodomo is. Previous films would play heavily with emotions that are hard to just have characters express. Feelings like love, compassion, and distance could be shown with swirling colors and massive vistas at any time. And because Shinkai is so talented we would recognize these images as something to strike our hearts in resonance. Children Who Chase Lost Voices From Deep Below follows a more linear plot that takes a theme and uses it as a plot device, and so the imagery is just more simplified and toned down.
It’s difficult not to compare Hoshi o Ou Kodomo to Shinkai’s other films because what else can you do when the young director hasn’t explored new themes before? Branching into a new direction is a risk worth taking, and I think Shinkai is completely successful in doing so. He’s keeping us on our feet with what to expect next. But for now he’s been traveling around the globe and promoting his film to audiences everywhere. Will he follow another fantasy-driven tale or craft something similar to his previous works? What if next we receive something of a period drama or maybe a war narrative? It sure is an exciting time to be a fan of Shinkai. And to think how far we’ve come in just 10 years since the release of Voices of a Distant Star. This auteur sure has enough time to expand and grow into any genre he wants.