Originally released: 2011
UK dubbed release: 2013
Run Time: 116 minutes
Rating: Age 12
I was going to title this review ‘Twisting Mythology and Alternative History Even Further’ but then you might wonder why I rate it 4/5 stars; mythology and history are hard enough to decipher as it is without adding to it… But there’s something wonderful about this film, whilst it changes and confuses things we think we know about cultures it manages to convey a spirit and a beauty. I’m not advocating playing with knowledge even if done beautifully/intricately (that actually makes the situation worse) but a lot of anime opens our minds and for people like me with an interest in such subjects it at least makes us wonder why people like Makoto Shinkai (writer, producer, cinematographer, director) who seems to know his stuff would produce such an ambitious film in length (his longest film yet) and design yet play with the details like this even with artistic license. Now that I think about it the title of this film has actually been changed too, from ‘Children Who Chase Lost Voices (From Deep Below)’ to ‘Journey to Agartha’ for some reason, though again I think the latter choice is more suitable, especially since in the film it’s mainly adults and one child looking for the elusive Agartha.
What is Agartha?
Agartha is one of the names worldwide given to a legendary place within the Earth, it wasn’t invented for the purpose of this film, and openings/doors have been claimed from Hawaii to the Himalayas and in the film they mention the South Pole. It’s said that people and animals, even gods and monsters, from different eras live and have survived there and like with many accounts of lost civilizations there is ongoing interest and research.
Less mythical nowadays is the Hollow Earth Theory and our Earth’s use of crystal and crystalline composition (though it can be said that we are remembering/finding what we forgot given that these things weren’t considered mythical in their day even if many modern people scoff).
The idea that we live in an enclosed world and even universe (though the word ‘universe’ tends to be local rather than the vast idea we have of it today) also isn’t new and has been explored in various films and tv shows some better than others and this is one of the better one in my opinion. It blends with the theory of interventionism which can standalone or align with both evolution and creationism. That somehow our space is like a laboratory environment, all the factors are controllable and/or responsive like either an intelligent or manipulated system; the sky, the sun, the weather, the growth/acceleration/decline of lifeforms etc it’s all workable and for those scientifically minded enough all up for grabs. In this film it’s Agartha that is the enclosed dimension/world and hence it has its own sky even though it’s within the Earth.
I won’t go further into these ideas and findings here but if you’ve the time at least lookup Hollow Earth Theory, it’s interesting even if it doesn’t fit into one’s worldview.
Plot and Commentary
Asuna like so very many characters in anime is a young teen who is very self reliant and practically raising herself regardless of having at least one parent/guardian around at times, in her case her father passed away and she lives with her mother who works too long. She’s bright, friendly, a good student and like anime schoolgirls in general seems to wear her uniform almost all the time and her skirt is far too short. She does differ from the norm however in that she has a special secret.
Living in a mountainous area she has a little space hidden away and in this place she listens to an early model radio receiver powered by a mysterious Blue crystal – crystals (particularly the abundant quartz) are still used in tech both all the time not just the pseudo sciences such as dowsing and radionics – she finds it soothing and then one day a certain song suddenly comes through, a song from someone’s heart.
The children of the area are warned that strange beasts have been spotted, on her way home she is confronted by what appears to be some kind of dinosaur and an exceptionally strong boy rescues her using another Blue crystal, he doesn’t mean to kill the beast but for some reason the crystal does that. It turns out it was his heart she heard and that he came from Agartha to meet her. Their bond is suddenly severed causing a traumatic loss for her though he is peaceful but the strangeness doesn’t end there.
The slain beast is rapidly both crystallizing and growing saplings, a strange decomposition and unnervingly fast. Then her substitute teacher is more than he seems working for a secret military looking society called Arch Angel but really only using them for a personal quest; he recites the Japanese/Shinto ‘Kojiki’ legend to her class. In line with cultural thought he mentions that the ‘land of the dead’ isn’t limited to Yomi of the Japanese but can be the Roman’s Underworld, Greek’s Hades and Buddhist’s Shamballah but he also uses Agartha in the same way because it is a space underneath our world/feet as we know it (bear in mind that people of later beliefs sometimes think of ‘Heaven’ and ‘Hell’ as separate to the Earth.) The Kojiki story in itself is interesting and resemblances can be found in earlier and later periods e.g. the rituals and behaviours of the main characters in it can also be described of the lesser deities (now the main pantheon) in Hinduism, Western Asian Inanna/Ishtar going into the underworld, Meso-American gods of life and death to the later Lilith and Adam (before Adam and Eve). Bear in mind though that Yomi and indeed the idea of the ‘land of the dead’ in general is not always a reward or punishment like the split paradise/Nirvana/Heaven and Hades/Tartarus/Hell – it’s just a place where those who are no longer living as we describe it are. Yomi also bears relation to other Asian beliefs that you must never eat anything offered by the dead or other beings/spirits in dreams or later European most notably Greek and Roman never eat anything in the underworld if you hope to return. – Something that is also not abided to in this film but I can see why.
Why? Well, following an unveiling of sinister secret society agents vs another beast (‘guardian’) at the portal between here and Agartha Asuna and Mr. Morisaki (the spy teacher) meet another exceptionally strong boy called Shin, the younger brother of the first who came to meet Asuna, and follow him through the door on what turns out to be a long, amazing journey. Interestingly enough, something that is emphasized a lot in world culture is the use of water as a portal through dimensions and in this case ‘vita aqua’ which seems to be a play on words for what we usually think of as a distilled rather than fermented alcohol or if I was going by the proper definition a concentrated aqueous solution of ethanol. Here it’s a type of liquid of life like water that you can breathe in, not unheard of mythology and perhaps partially the reason for the lack of gills in humanoid water dwelling creatures.
By letting Asuna and Morisaki through young Shin has failed both on his mission to retrieve the crystal his brother Shun had taken and in preventing outsiders from using the portal. He must confiscate Asuna’s crystal but it’s not as easy as that, Asuna and Morisaki are determined to get to a certain place – a gate where wishes can be granted, even raising the dead.
It’s a long, arduous journey in which they travel across very different lands, meet different peoples and creatures, Asuna tries to figure out why exactly she is there and what she really wants, and Morisaki almost blindly determined to see through his mission to the end for which there is little he will not sacrifice and yet the boundaries he does have will be tested and hard lessons learned (though that doesn’t help his victims). It seems many of the beings in Agartha have a place, a meaning and to fulfil their purpose is to complete their lives in the so-called ‘cycle of life’.
More Commentary on Culture and Characterization
The guardian beasts in this film are called Quetzalcoatls (gatekeepers of the portals), they come in a variety of forms from a beautiful deer to the more dinosaur looking, Morisaki explains them as being former gods like those of Sumer. He says the gods guided humanity but went to Agartha when humanity didn’t need them anymore, along with some human clans and due to the pollution above (from topsiders/surface dwellers) the guardians who live on the boundaries at least if not in Agartha itself have lost their senses and supposedly memories. Is Morisaki an archetypal trickster character? Deceiving Asuna and/or the audience? His explanations of the guardians also seems apologist if not reverent even though his manner towards the ones we see is anything but. He/or Shinkai (the director etc of the film) has done a lot of mixing here – in our current view of things Quetzalcoatl was/is a feathered serpent diety of Meso-America and is the name of one being not a species and the breadth shown of the Quetzalcoatls in this film make it hard to compare though Asuna and Morisaki seem to think there is a semblance – visually it’s hard to say they are related and theirs seems more in function and ability. He’s also mixing in the term ‘guardians’, many of the gods, monsters and aliens in history/religion/culture seem to be called guardians by default and even interchangeably with ‘watchers’. In practice ‘owners’ and ‘orchestrators’ may be more adequate and if you’ve read Zecharia Sitchin’s works on ancient Sumer Morisaki/Shinkai’s descriptions of Quetzalcoatl(s) might make more sense but as part of the worldwide reptilian theme in ‘other beings’ and their potentially taking over prehistoric creatures rather than Quetzalcoatl of Meso-America specifically. Ironically Asuna still calls Morisaki ‘teacher’.
Even the name for the crystals is steeped in history and alternative practises, they’re called Clavis’ like Frederick Hockley’s ‘the Rosicrucian Seer‘ works on crystal magic and occultism.
This is a story of life and death, at least in how we perceive them and how we react, as much as it is about culture, even Agartha is “falling into ruin“. For example the Yodoriko (not sure on the spelling) – “animals in which reside god’s children, raised with humans after they serve their purpose they become one with the Quetzalcoatls and live for eternity.” One that has been accompanying Asuna in the form of small fox looking cat (both animals being prevalent in Japanese culture) comes to the end of its path and we see it swallowed by an ancient Quetzalcoatl and yet it’s not like eating, which is something that has become a fun activity, an indicator of stress, addiction, desire and waste for some people as much if not more than it is about nutrition. In the film it retains its cycle of life significance and is more a consuming and becoming part of the body and continuing act – it reminded me of mothers who eat their stillborn or unborn to take them back into their body so as not to lose them and perhaps in the hope of meeting them/being together again later on perhaps in this life even (potentially related in a diluted manner to the practise of mothers eating their placenta). That same Quetzalcoatl carries Asuna and Shin that way before regurgitating them at the Gate of Life and Death.
A side story is the mixing of inner and surface dwellers and having mixed race children is generally frowned upon though they are not outcasts. Asuna from the start seems to enjoy solitude; she has school, her mother and Mimi (her Yodoriki/pet friend) but the journey just makes it so hard on her, is part of why she feels torn is because she’s half… The film expresses that though we may appear different all things are related, somehow.
The Gate of Life and Death, where it is, what is there, what happens there is probably the most interesting place symbolically – and for those who’ve seen the film, remember Morisaki mentioning that one of the Quetzalcoatls from earlier was an ancient whale from 50million years ago (whalesong, how they communicate, how far it spreads, what it means, their graveyards – akin to elephants – but dolphins and whales are considered alien ancestors to some).
The reason why Agartha is shrouded in mystery in the film is that the residents remember times topsiders visited in the past to raid it of the resources and the genocide that ensued. King, emperors and leaders are shown –
“they needed Agartha’s knowledge and treasure to rule over the surface you see, and what they brought in return were countless wars. We were more glorious than anywhere on the surface but our cities were all but destroyed and our birthrate dwindled, now there are but a handful of villages that remain. And so we shut the gates with the Clavis’ locking them to prevent anyone from the surface from entering.”
One of the leaders shown was Hitler who many may have heard was interested in Aryanism/ancient Iranians or Persians and the Indus Valley into India (the Blue eyed Blonde haired look is not related to the word ‘Aryan’ that is a misconception like the idea that he hated Jews due to dark hair and eyes, and the misuse of the swastika which became the symbolic cross later on, the symbol of ‘crossing’. The Blue Blonde parallels Blue eyed Red haired blood types but more on the alien side/sires than the supposedly mixed-breed/species human sides and can be linked with the obsession for Turquoise and Gold.) I’ve heard hearsay that Hitler went to India for more information and was told he was mad (not worthy of such knowledge).
Another species the protagonists come across and indeed against are the Izoku; skeletal, ghostly, shadowy creatures who some might see resemblances with creatures who feed off your energy mostly when asleep and cause paralysis in that state. However they are also quite adaptable to any number of references.
From what you’ve read so far in this review you can see that ‘Journey to Agartha’ is rich in detail; as a setting/environment is has been well developed, from the landscape to the people and their culture from the clothing various clans people wear to their carpets even the way in which they are overlaid and their tapestries. There is a theory that the geometrical designs on real Persian carpets are a cosmological code and the designs on the furnishings in the film do relate to sacred geometry at least. This depth of detail is not lost on the characterizations; Shin even cuts his hair after being shamed and demoted in a sense. All of the protagonists are on a journey, they are changing, showing sides of themselves, dealing with their motivations and feelings. Some journeys end and that’s not necessarily a bad thing, though it doesn’t excuse the ways in which they die/pass on. Pain, hope, renewal, loss, acceptance and movement in general really pace this film and its characters.
Unfortunately for me the actress Hilary Haag whose voice I mentioned disliking in my ‘5 Centimeters Per Second’ (2007) (another intensely beautiful and sad film) review plays Asuna here so I had to listen to her version of nasal aka a high pitched squeak suitable for damaging chalkboards with all throughout and that’s coming from someone who doesn’t like the sound of her own voice but I prefer her voice in small doses. She’s a bit like Marmite, many love her, many don’t, with a few leftover who aren’t bothered. Her voice is ultra feminine in a stereotypical girly, immature way and half of the characters she’s plays I find tiresome and too bossy (hey I don’t mind and even like bossy characters – but she tends to play bossy, demanding and spoilt – a dreadful combination), thankfully Asuna isn’t one of them – she’s independent, kind, knowledgeable and strong. Call me old fashioned but I prefer the other stereotype of deep and sultry… And that’s not because I have a somewhat deep and non-girly voice, really, it isn’t. I have rather less to say about the other actors and that’s a good thing because they blend well with their characters, characteristics and artwork whereas in anime Haag’s voice really calls for a more distinctive character and maybe another brash or unique voice to compliment or confront.
I didn’t notice the background music so much in the first half but thereafter it really became quite a driving force, a symphony of emotion moving alongside the characters, dramatic and a lot of the time sad. Have tissues handy if you’re of the teary disposition. It’s just as beautiful as the skyscapes that Shinkai presents us with, his love of/or fascination with portrayals of the sky being something I wrote about in my last review.
The artwork and visual styles in ‘5 Centimeters Per Second’ were alot more cutting edge in their look, ‘Journey to Agartha’ is less modern art and easily compared in both content and style with the likes of Studio Ghibli’s films. That said I don’t find Ghibli’s content to stray and reinvent cultural authenticity and symbolism, which in that sense if I was comparing it to many Hollywood offerings I’d say Ghibli is thankfully refreshing and can make niche content more mainstream without twisting, dumbing down, hiding or incorporating/normalizing them. Makoto Shinkai’s feat here is that he didn’t do that either but this film’s content is still less accessible to the wider audience in my opinion than ‘5 Centimeters Per Second’ which was more straightforward and relatable. I say that because If you are not familiar with world culture a lot of the references will go over your head e.g. the use of vimanas – flying ships upon which the gods rode (and in Hindu scriptures the designs can be quite technical, in the film Shinkai clocked on with his use of gongs and piercing frequencies) they tended to look animalistic, they are streamlined in modern Hinduism and people take the idea of deities riding various animals literally and the “God of Agartha” seems very root culture (ancient ‘Hinduism’ and ‘Gnosticism’ – different to modern Hinduism and Gnosticism. Note – Gnostics are given a passing mention in the film though it may be relating to the later misperception that they were part of/originated in Christianity). I think it’s sad that a lot of content isn’t widely accessible (though I think that in general regardless of the film) so I’ve tried to briefly explain some in this review but if you are a fan of fantasy films and journeys into strange lands you can still appreciate it, not least for its artwork. The beautiful, bizarre and breathtaking landscapes and details are still on display in this film as they are in his others as well as interesting characters, thought provoking and moving narrative and narration.