Andrew Osmond chases lost voices from deep below
Journey to Agartha (otherwise known by the hefty title Children who Chase Lost Voices from Deep Below) is a film by Makoto Shinkai, the man behind 5 Centimetres per Second, The Place Promised in Our Early Days and Voices of a Distant Star. If you’ve seen any of those, then Agartha will scream Shinkai-ville from its opening shots. The film opens with Asuna, the little-girl protagonist, scampering over a railway bridge, sun gleaming off the metal tracks and the water below; then she climbs a hill that’s a blend of oil-painting daubs and crisp details. Shinkai’s stories take place in nostalgic realms of idealised lushness (keep track of Agartha’s lovely incidental insect imagery).
Yet in an important way, Agartha is a new start for Shinkai. The protagonists in his earlier anime were teenagers, and Shinkai claims those films were watched mostly by males, aged between 20 and 30 years. It’s not a bad demographic, but it’s much narrower than Studio Ghibli’s movies, to which Shinkai’s films are often compared. He also said his anime were restricted in other ways. “My older works required people to know certain details about Japanese culture in order to enjoy them,” he told Baltimore’s Otakon convention in 2011. “I wanted to make Agartha different, so that people who don’t know about Japan could also enjoy it.” According to the “Behind the Scenes” documentary on Agartha’s home release, Shinkai was partly influenced by a trip to the Middle East. In 2008, he held a digital animation workshop in Jordan, Qatar and Syria, at the request of Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. When he screened 5 Centimetres per Second, he found himself wondering if people from such different cultures could understand it.
On the other hand, Shinkai denied at Otakon that he thought of Agartha as an “international” film. “It’s true that I wanted younger audiences to watch it and if they do so abroad, that would make me very happy. But when I was in the process of making Agartha, I never really thought that I was making it for the world market. I just wanted to make something different.”
Instead of angsty, lonely adolescents, the heroine is a preteen girl who finds a realm of gods and monsters, with copious echoes of Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke and Laputa: Castle in the Sky. Young Asuna lives in a small country town with her mother (her dad died some years before). She’s a delicate-looking but energised child, given to scaling the slopes above her village and listening to mysterious signals on her makeshift radio. On the railway bridge she meets a monster, a drooling bear-like creature wanting Little Girl for breakfast. She’s saved by a comely long-haired boy, who steals the young girl’s heart before vanishing. Asuna is told he’s dead but continues to seek him, stumbling on armed men looking for the boy’s mythic home. At one point, a helicopter shows up from nowhere, strafing Asuna’s wooded playground with machine-gun fire; it’s a jolting, powerful moment. One of the men takes Asuna through stone walls and cavernous passages to the underworld of Agartha.
It’s a family film, but dark and scary at times; the bloody scenes remind us we’re a long way from Disney. Like the very different Puella Magi Madoka Magica, Agartha is an anime that knowingly retells an oft-told tale and makes that part of its point. Of course, it’s in the tradition of stories about children finding fantastical words, like Wonderland, Neverland, Narnia, Oz or the gods’ bathhouse in Miyazaki’s Spirited Away. It’s also a “Hollow Earth” yarn, like Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth or Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Pellucidar stories.
Shinkai, though, was specifically influenced by a Japanese story not known in Britain. It’s called Pyramid Boushi yo, Sayonara, by the female author Yoshiko Okkotsu. In this book, it’s a boy, rather than a girl, who travels to an underworld called Agartha.
“I fell in love with the book when I was at elementary school,” Shinkai says. “In the story, pyramid power leads a middle-school boy to Agartha. The book is packed with so many concepts that I didn’t know about back then: first love, the emotional strength and weakness of adults, and so forth. Actually, there is a scene (in the book) where the characters make an independent film. I learned that films are made by people for the first time. I loved the story because it felt like an exciting, unknown world was opening up before my eyes.”
The author died before she ended the book. “So a different author picked up where she left off and concluded the story,” Shinkai says. “I was only an elementary school kid but I felt that something wasn’t right. I thought, ‘This is not the ending I was expecting.’ I felt that way for a long time… I thought about what type of ending I was looking for. The story in that book and in Journey to Agartha are completely different but, looking back, I think the book was one of the things that influenced this film.”
Journey to Agartha stresses that cultures worldwide have dreamed of an underworld where the dead go, and where the boldest – or most foolhardy – living heroes might follow to get them back. For us, the most familiar version of the story has the Greek harpist Orpheus trying to save his beloved wife Euridyce. The Japanese have a parallel myth of the deities Izanagi and Izanami, whose story Asuna learns at school.
Like Asuna, Shinkai was a stranger in a strange land when he created the film. In fact, he was on a year-long stay in London.
“I was going to school there, taking classes with students in their teens and early twenties,” he said. “The time there made me reflect on when I was a clumsy teenager. I kept a record of the things that spilled over from everyday life and school days in story form…
“Whatever was my feeling during my stay in London kept sinking deep below. Basically the message behind [the film] is to go down there and notice or find something. It’d be great if you could come back to the normal world after your discovery. I guess you could say that’s how the idea of the underground world in the film originated.”
Shinkai also sometimes visited the British Museum, whose ancient artefacts from around the globe helped inform the fabulous land of Agartha. Like the forlorn heroes and heroines of his anime, Shinkai dreamed of getting home to Japan, and back to a special someone. In Shinkai’s case, that someone was his beloved cat. Finally, Shinkai went back to Japan and had the dreamed-of reunion, only to find the moggie had forgotten him completely. “She’s a cat… It can’t be helped,” Shinkai says philosophically of the faithless feline. Despite the betrayal, a cat plays an important role in Agartha… Ah, but is a cat all that it is?
Journey to Agartha is out now on UK DVD and Blu-ray from Kaze Animation.