Makoto Shinkai is the rising star of the past decade in the anime world. Those who are familiar with his previous films, such as "Voices of a Distant Star" and "5 Centimeters Per Second" know him for his borderline photo-realistic animation and bittersweet stories of unfulfilled love. In many ways, this film continues that dialogue, however in a manner that is far more comparable to the traditional anime.
The story, based heavily off of the Japanese myth of Izangai and the underworld (Shinkai studied classic Japanese literature in college), tells of a young girl who hears a distant tune through her radio receiver as she escapes monotonous, lonely everyday life in the woods. One day on her way to her hide out, a "bear" (who is really a spiritual guardian) attacks her on the bridge and she is saved by a mysterious boy. The boy receives an injury during her rescue, and is found days later dead in the river. She ventures into a fantastical underworld-- Agartha--with her teacher, who is seeking to revive his lost wife. The story beautifully conveys the permanent loneliness of loss.
Many have compared it to Studio Ghibli's films, calling it a "ripoff" or "copy" of Hiyo Miyazaki's masterpieces. While, no doubt, this is inspired and comparable to Miyazaki, it is very different in many, many ways. First of all, it is a bit more mature thematically than most of Miyazaki's works. Second of all, the animation is stylistically different (opting more for light-oriented realism) and the plot develops a lot slower and more deliberately than what one expects from Miyazaki.
Thus complete par- for-par comparisons between the two are misguided. If you approach the film expecting a Miyazaki aspiration, you will be disappointed and that's not the point. It is more like a wondrous marriage of Shinkai's signature melancholy, introspective, cerebral style and Miyazaki's fantastical grandeur. Despite the differences, with this film Sinkai has shown us that if there is one director that can take the tradition Miyazaki and Ghibli has established into the next century it is he.
The strongest points of the film include Shinkai's greatly improved character rendering--though, not perfect, far better than his previous efforts. Wonderfully executed plot that develops in a slow, well-thought out manner. Sometimes in such stories of fantasy, directors let the plot get away from them, progressing it far too quickly; however, Shinkai kept the pace at the established rate. The character development was incredible as well.
He also absolutely wonderful scenes of what film critic Robert Ebert has deemed "pillow scenes"--short, inconsequential shots such as a dragonfly on the water, or bird in the sky, or tree out a window--to take a quick breather in between important scenes. They are not only absolutely wonderfully animated, but put in to make the plot feel more natural, progress more realistically and, in this case, give the film a cerebral aesthetic which only adds to the movement of the audience. Though an important feature of many great anime movies, this is probably the film I've seen them used the most effectively. In his past films, Shinkai's over-used them, but had just the right amount in this one It's partially Shinkai's masterful control of lighting and photo realism, I found myself pausing and rewinding at times just to admire an inconsequential butterfly or shimmering sky.
This is probably only the third anime movie I've given 10 stars, but it deserves every last one of them. Highly recommended.
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