The UK release title of the latest animated feature film from Makoto Shinkai (5 Centimetres per Second) is perhaps less poetic than the original translation of the Japanese title ("Children Who Chase Lost Voices From Deep Below"), but Journey to Agartha is appropriately a little more direct and accurate in its description. The film is indeed a journey for its young female protagonist - and a journey in more ways than one - while the name Agartha if it's not immediately recognisable (it's a mythological land at the centre of the earth), should at least suggest a fantastical place of adventure. Shinkai certainly has all the elements at his disposal then, and Journey to Agartha delivers on its premise and its title to a large degree, with all the high production values of its gorgeously detailed animation, but there's still something missing here, something that prevents the film from being a totally satisfying experience.
Even though Makoto Shinkai has developed his own interests and themes across his previous independent shorts and features, there's a deliberate move towards the mainstream with his latest film that makes comparisons with Studio Ghibli unavoidable, and there at least, Journey to Agartha inevitably falls short. It's more than just the fact that Hayao Miyazaki is so well-known now in mainstream animation that almost any anime feature is going to be measured alongside his work and found wanting. As well as a number of surface similarities in the visual approach Journey to Agartha also adheres to themes well-established in the Ghibli output. The main protagonist of Journey to Agartha is very much the Miyazaki heroine. Asuna is 12 year-old girl who is self-dependent (her father is dead, her mother works night shifts), she's in touch with nature, spending her time in the surrounding hills of her remote rural village, with a little cat Mimi as her only friend, listening to strange songs in the ether on mysterious transmissions that she picks up through the crystal receiver in her home-made radio tuner. The lushness of nature is wondrously depicted by the animation, the greenery of the sun-dappled forests, the hum and buzz of insects, until the danger of the corruption of nature (and youthful innocence) becomes present in the world.
The school children are warned of the rumour of a bear being seen in the woods, but when Asuna encounters the creature on a bridge that carries the train across the valley, it turns out not to be a bear, but a huge supernatural beast of unknown origin - a Quetzal Coatl, wounded and on its last legs, making it all the more dangerous. A mysterious young man with special powers and abilities appears however out of nowhere to rescue Asuna, and it is revealed that the creature and the boy come from another place deep beneath the earth called Agartha. Asuna makes further connections to the mystery when a new replacement teacher arrives at the school. Mr Morisaki relates the ancient tale from Kojiki mythology of Izanagi, who travels to the land of Yomi to bring back his dead wife Izanami, an oriental version of the Orpheus myth that has particular resonance for a young girl who has lost her father.
There may be some superficial connections to Miyazaki's heroines then, to nature and mythology, with a handsome young man who sparks off a journey of discovery in the young girl, but Makoto Shinkai's film also forges other personal, oriental and mythological resonances. The idea of birth and rebirth is very much at the heart of the story and in imagery clearly drawn from numerous sources. Asuna's teacher is visibly pregnant before she hands over to the stand-in teacher, and during Mr Morisaki's recounting of the Izanagi myth, you can see butterflies - creatures that have been transformed and reborn - floating around the windows. The secrets of life and death obsess not only Asuna or Mr Morisaki - whose wife died young (two burials depicted in cold, barren snow-covered land) but there are other people clearly interested in the evidence of an entrance to the Underworld that the creature and the mysterious young man's presence in the area suggest.
Thematically then, Journey to Agartha has a strong premise that is expertly if somewhat conventionally laid-out in the beautifully animated opening sections of the film. When it comes to tying those themes to events and places in the Underworld, the film remains visually beautiful and well-animated, but the conventionality of the depiction of Agartha as a kind of oriental Middle-Earth, with a sun, a sky and an agrarian community, under threat from "Topsiders" for centuries, is more of a drawback and doesn't make a whole lot of sense alongside the Underworld/Yomi themes, at least not until the characters arrive at Finis Terra. Some jarring elements involving guns and a mysterious organisation that is never fully developed create a lack of consistency in tone and some loose ends, but ultimately the story itself just fails to deliver the required follow-though on the main themes.
It's difficult however to put your finger on exactly what is missing in Journey to Agartha other than to use a rather inprecise and subjective term like "magic". To all intents and purposes, the film has all the necessary ingredients, but the magic and fantasy is confined to the content on a surface narrative level, and it never achieves a magical connection or dialogue with the viewer in the way that even the least of Hayao Miyazaki's features can. To some extent Miyazaki's animators are able to achieve a greater sense of personality through a rather more subtle use of expression and movement than the comparatively more functional animation created here, and the problem lies more in not really being able to visually depict the indefinable sense of emptiness that Asuna feels. Her journey to Agartha and her experience of the Land of the Dead don't ultimately reveal much more the young girl coming to an awareness of her loneliness in the realisation that the dead never come back. That's a long way to go for such an unsurprising and inconsequential revelation.
Journey to Agartha is released by Manga Entertainment in a number of editions. The main edition - reviewed here - is the 3-disc Collector's Edition, which contains the film on Blu-ray, the film on DVD, a bonus disc of extra features, and an artbook (not seen). Single disc BD and DVD editions are also available.
This edition has been prepared by Kazť for a number of territories, so options are given to select French, English, Italian or Netherlands menus during loading. The Blu-ray disc contains the 116 minute feature film alone, with no extra features. The disc is BD25, with an AVC encode at 1080/24p.
In terms of picture quality, the transfer is just about reference quality. The detail visible in the elaborate backgrounds is extraordinary, the colour definition is superb, richly toned, exhibiting a full range of colours in, for example, the greenery of the mountain forests, and the deep, solid blacks. The image is perfectly stable, with fluid motion and solid lines, and not a hint of flicker. The film also makes extensive use of light effects for diffused light and to better define the times of the day, and the transfer handles these subtle effects very well. I didn't even notice any banding issues which usually plague anime series, so really, there is nothing to fault in this transfer. It looks terrific.
The audio tracks are also of a very high standard. There are only two choices, between the original Japanese DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 and the English dub also in DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1. Both make effective use of the dynamic range and the surrounds in clear, subtle and unshowy way. Selection of the audio track can only be made from the main menu, choosing either the English dub or the Japanese subtitled option. The Japanese track is the more obvious option, the voices specifically selected for the film and the animation built around working with the Japanese voice-actors, but I found that the English dub and voice acting also worked quite well.
Subtitles on both BD and DVD are in white font, and clear and readable. They are mandatory with the Japanese track and not available with the English dub.
Watching the film on DVD in Standard Definition is scarcely any less impressive. It's certainly not as vivid in the colouration or detail, but this still looks beautiful, the transfer properly standards converted, with no evidence of interlacing or banding. With PAL speed-up applied, the film consequently running to 113 minutes, motion is evidently not quite as fluid as the Blu-ray transfer, looking slightly more juddery in pan movements, but really, unless you've made a direct comparison to the HD transfer, you're not going to see anything more than a very good transfer here.
The audio tracks are likewise of lesser specification - Dolby Digital 5.1 for both Japanese and English tracks - but again, they are strong, clear and resonant, more than adequate for the film. As with the BD, there are no the features on the standalone DVD disc, and audio tracks and subtitles can't be switched via the remote, only from the main menu.
There are a couple of slightly over-long features on the bonus disc, but they do give a very comprehensive overview of the intentions of the filmmaker and the genesis and development of the project. There's only so much to be gained from the voice actor's insights into their characters in the 55-minute Actors Interviews feature, but the director is also interviewed here and provides some interesting thoughts on what inspired the film, what its aims were and how the characters were developed.
The 45-minute Behind The Scenes documentary is even more detailed, exploring the original idea - developed by Shinkai while living for a year in London - right through the scripting, design and animation process. Every aspect of the actual making is also covered, from the voice acting, animation special effects and music composition right through to the film's initial reception around the world.
For anyone unfamiliar with the director's past work, the seven-minute The Journey of Makoto Shinkai provides short clips of his early short animations and trailers for his more recent feature films, giving a very good idea of the areas of interest explored in his oeuvre and the development of his style.
A video is included for the theme song Hello Goodbye and Hello and there is a short teaser Trailer 1 and a longer Trailer 2.
Journey to Agartha is a much bigger project than anything we've seen from Makoto Shinkai before, and even though it's clearly been lavished with attention to detail and subjected to the production values of a major mainstream animation feature, it still remains a personal project for a director with a more independent background. Unfortunately, the choice of subject and the animation style in Journey to Agartha are so close to the Studio Ghibli house style as to invite unfavourable comparisons. More than that however, the original purpose or some kind of meaningful resolution of the questions raised seems to have gotten lost over the course of the actual journey to the mystical land of Agartha. There's still much to admire in the impressive animation, the attention to detail and the sensitivity shown in the handling of the themes of loss and self-discovery, but the relatively small-scale revelations and intimacy of the Shinkai approach doesn't seem to be best served with this type of production.