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Journey To Agartha – Children Who Chase Lost Voices UK Anime DVD Review

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Journey to AgarthaThey should really rename this Ghibliesque 2: Ghibli Harder.

What They Say:
Children Who Chase Lost Voices… When she hears a strange song from a crystal radio, Asuna tunes into more than just a magical stream of music. Soon, she is transported to a mysterious world where mythical beasts roam and brave warriors fight for their lives. Agartha is a land of breathtaking beauty and unimaginable danger – a place where, it is believed; even the dead can be brought back to life. But at what cost?

The Review:
Nothing particularly of note in regard to audio or video, sound and visuals are crisp. Subtitles do their job and are easy to read with no significant issues. However, when playing both the film and the extras discs through Media Player Classic, the progress bar doesn’t work properly and keeps resetting to zero after around 10 minutes. This makes it impossible to select a specific moment in the film without backing out to the main menu and utilising chapter select using this player. This issue did not occur when playing the DVD’s through VLC. It’s a very minor problem and probably won’t affect the majority of people, but it could cause a problem for some.

The menu for Journey to Agartha has a nice aesthetic style to it, with the logo in the centre of the screen and a horizontal split across the entire menu. Clips from the film loop both above and below the split, with the top clips being from the surface world and the bottom clip being from Agartha itself, which is a lovely touch. It seems kind of odd that a few of the clips that show are actually pretty significant spoilers, although it might not be apparent if you haven’t already seen the film. Unlike most menus, there aren’t actually any submenus; all of the options are right there on the main page inside blue bubbles. The main disc contains language options, chapter select and a play all option, whilst the secondary disc has a similar layout and features links for an interview with the voice actors, a behind the scenes feature, a short clip about Makoto Shinkai, a couple of trailers and a music video for the ending theme. An instrumental theme from the film plays on a loop over both menus.

Journey to Agartha has a significant amount of extras, including interviews, features and trailers. All the various clips are in their original Japanese language format with English subtitles, with the exception of the music video which has no subtitling. One of the longest segments is an interview with the various voice actors for the film, which revolves around their experience with their lines, what they think of the characters they portray and what they thought of each other’s performances. They also touch upon things like favourite lines and moments in the film. It’s interesting to hear the thoughts and opinions on the film from the very people who brought the characters to life and is worth a watch if you enjoyed Agartha and want to understand it from a different point of view. Another clip shows a short history of Makoto Shinkai’s works, starting out with’ She and Her Cat’ and following all of his major pieces up until Agartha itself, although it acts more as a sequence of trailers than an actual history, backed up by a few title screens with a little information on each piece.

The trailers are relatively general for what they are, short clips around a minute long from the film to give an idea of what it’s about and a mention of those involved. Unlike many music videos, the ending theme is actually well put together, setting clips from the film to the music. The choreography has obviously been thought about and the clips seem to have been chosen to somewhat represent how the music is progressing, although some of them seem a little out of place. It is certainly better than a lot of similar attempts from other releases though, so worth watching. The most interesting segment though is the behind the scenes feature, which once again starts out with a short history of Shinkai’s major works (why they have this and the shorter featurette on it is beyond me, this one is better and more descriptive) followed by a look into how the film was made. It looks at the concepts behind Agartha, the world itself, the creatures that live in it and the inspirations for the story. This is then followed up by a look at character designs, art style and all manner of other animation related information, also having a look at the development and creation of the backgrounds of the film. Later on in the feature it also covers the voice recording process for the characters, audio design for sound effects and music composition, showing clips of the recording process and discussing their importance in making a greater feature. Considering the high quality of the film’s aesthetics, it is very interesting to see how everything is built up from the original storyboards and concepts and that alone makes this a highly recommended extra to watch. Overall, Journey to Agartha has a collection of some of the best extras I’ve seen for a release in a long time, with the total time nearly matching that of the actual film itself. If you enjoyed the main feature, the extras are very much worth checking out.

Journey to Agartha (also known as Children Who Chase Lost Voices From the Deep, renamed for the UK release for some seemingly unnecessary reason) is the newest film release by acclaimed director Makoto Shinkai (5 Centimetres Per Second, The Place Promised In Our Early Days) and a change in style compared to his previous works. Whilst his earlier works focus around human themes and emotions and generally stick to the realm of reality, Agartha is very heavy on the fantasy elements. The story revolves around Asura, a young girl who looks like she stepped right out a Ghibli film and happens to be a normal girl in every way. She spends most of her time alone, enjoying the landscapes of her hometown whilst listening to music on a crystal radio given to her by her father before he passed away. Turns out however, that the crystal in her radio and the music she listens to is intrinsically linked to Agartha, a mythical realm below the surface of the earth considered by all means to be a paradise similar to Shangri-la or other such places that supposedly exist around the world. One day, she (and her cat-squirrel-thing, called Mimi) are attacked by a large monstrous creature on top of a railway bridge, before being saved by a handsome young boy by the name of Shun. Upon fighting the creature and getting wounded, he uses a crystal and eventually kills the beast, its body slipping into the river below. Asura quickly befriends Shun (and, err, falls in love with him… I think?) and they spend some time together, Shun revealing that he is in fact from the land of Agartha.

Skip forwards a little, and Asura meets up with Shun again… except it turns out Shun is dead and this is in fact Shin, his younger brother. Some dudes in an Apache turn up and start trying to mow them down with a minigun (no, seriously) and they escape, fleeing together into an underground passageway that leads to Agartha. A barrier is opened and Shin, Asura and the captain of the military dudes go through it before it closes off, after which it turns out the dude is actually one of Asura’s teachers by the name of Ryuuji, and he wants to go to Agartha for the sake of resurrecting his dead wife. Shin doesn’t like this, and gets all moody before wandering off, proclaiming that ‘he doesn’t care what they do’. The rest of the film consists of Asura and Ryuuji wandering around Agartha looking for a giant hole in the ground called Finis Terra, where the God of Agartha travels to and can grant wishes, such as the aforementioned resurrection. Shin goes back to his village, just to find out that he shouldn’t have let Asura and Ryuuji (titled henceforth as ‘topsiders’) in to Agartha as it’ll just cause problems. Up until this point, the film has progressed relatively smoothly and makes sense, but it’s at this point where it starts to stumble about and become disjointed.

Shin needs to get the crystal back from Asura (which she brought in via her radio), whilst the small contingent of military troops from the village wants to kill the ‘topsiders’ (cue flashbacks featuring a war between the ‘topsiders’ and the Agarthians, which never really gets developed that much). In amongst all of this, weird skeletal creatures which can only exist within the shadows start doing creepy things and trying to devour Asura for whatever reason. They look a bit like the Redeads from the Zelda franchise, although one of the later scenes with them makes me think a bit of the mass produced Evangelions. There’s also a setup for a love story between Shin and some girl from his village, which is abruptly forgotten, whilst a latter sequence in the village after Asura helps rescue a child doesn’t really tell the audience anything. After this, it gets even weirder and less consistent. Ryuuji meets God, Shin gets into a fight with the military and Asura runs along a river for a few minutes whilst being chased by Redead-alikes, things get a little creepy and subsequently resolved and then… it just ends. The ending is abrupt and sudden and feels unfinished.

For a film with such an acclaimed director and a history of great films, Agartha seems like a disappointment. It has some great moments and scenes here and there, the world building is a high point and the characters aren’t too bad, but it definitely feels as if there should have been more to it. The huge level of inspiration from Ghibli films is somewhat overbearing too, it seems more like it’s trying to be a Ghibli film than an original story in places, and it shows. Asura herself is pretty much a carbon copy of your average Ghibli heroine (one thing I will fault Miyazaki on is the similarity between his main characters) whilst Shin has a similar secondary role. Hell, even Mimi, Asura’s pet, seems like it was taken from Nausicaä. Other than the Ghibli-isation of everything, the film also has multiple other flaws. The storytelling gets sloppy from about halfway in, throwing in plot points and ideas and then abandoning them soon after. The flashbacks to the war between Agartha and the above world seem out of place and not entirely necessary, whilst Ryuuji’s back story segments are thrown in haphazardly and don’t quite hit home as hard as they could of, especially considering Shinkai’s ability to have emotional impacts in previous works. Whilst the plot and characters are imperfect they aren’t to such a level that it stops Agartha from being an enjoyable film, just one which had the potential and ability to be something greater if it had just dared to stray from fantasy cliché and tropes that little bit further, something which Shinkai has proven he’s able to achieve.

However, it is arguable that, with all the film’s flaws in storytelling and characterisation, it makes up for it in world creation and aesthetics. Whilst those elements alone don’t make a good film, they are used to such an extent in Agartha that they could make it worth a watch regardless of quality. Shinkai is known for his ability to make beautiful backgrounds and this continues to be apparent throughout Agartha, which is filled with numerous shots showing off how aesthetically pleasing the landscapes are. One thing worth noting about Shinkai is his love of clouds, every film he’s done has had impressive skies filled with ridiculously detailed clouds. I for one counted no less than 21 gratuitous cloud shots throughout Agartha, and I probably missed some. Another part of Agartha worth noting in regards to aesthetics is the fight sequences. The choreography for these sequences is fantastic and it looks great in motion, especially since each major fight incorporates a notably higher quality level of animation than other areas of the film, every movement flowing smoothly and without any noticeable quality drop in the character models. Credit must be given for the designers of the various denizens of Agartha too, they each have intricate and intriguing designs, a lovely blend of fantastical and believable and helps further build up the possibility of such a world existing. Music in Agartha is handled by Tenmon, the same composer whom has worked with Shinkai throughout all of his films (and the anime series ‘ef’) and, once again, proves to be a worthy choice. The score for Agartha is absolutely beautiful, each piece composed for the situation at hand and utilised well, whilst being fantastic in their own right. The soundtrack really works well to enhance the fantastical feeling of the land of Agartha and is worth a listen even if the film itself doesn’t interest. ‘Hello Goodbye & Hello’, the ending theme, isn’t anything that special on the other hand, which is a little disappointing. It’s not a bad song at all, but nothing really stands out about it.

Overall, whilst flawed, Agartha is an enjoyable experience and worth watching even if just for the magnificent visual and audio display. I’d recommend it to anyone who’s a fan of Studio Ghibli’s works, especially ‘Princess Mononoke’ and ‘Spirited Away’, and Makoto Shinkai’s previous works ‘5 Centimetres per Second’ and ‘The Place Promised in Our Early Days’.

In Summary:
As a standalone film, Journey to Agartha – Children Who Chase Lost Voices is certainly not a bad film. The ideas and themes are intriguing, the setting and world is interesting and it’s an aesthetic work of art. However, flaws in the way in which the story is told cause some sequences to be either subsequently forgotten or simply seem out of place, whilst most of the characters fit into well-defined archetypes and don’t develop beyond that.  If you’ve enjoyed any of the films by Studio Ghibli in the past, you may well enjoy this as that’s obviously what it’s trying to emulate. Maybe it succeeded in its attempt a bit too well, and comes across as a somewhat clichéd and unoriginal film, whilst still lacking some of the charm that makes Studio Ghibli’s films so endearing. Despite its flaws it still manages to be entertaining in its own right and has many positive elements to its name and, if you want a film which combines elements of fantasy and reality and an overarching theme of human loss, this may just be the film you’re looking for.

Japanese 2.0, English 2.0, English subtitles, Behind the Scenes: Making of Agartha feature, Interviews with the voice actors, Music video for the ending theme, two trailers and a short history of Makoto Shinkai

Content Grade: B
Audio Grade: A-
Video Grade: A+
Menu Grade: A-
Extras Grade: A+

Released By: Manga Entertainment UK
Release Date: January 28th 2013
Running Time:  116 (Film) 113 (Extras)
Price: £15.00

Review Equipment:
23” Samsung HDTV, Creative speakers and Sub, Laptop with HDMI connection.

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