English Title: Children Who Chase Lost Voices
Japanese Title: 星を追う子ども [lit. children who chase stars]
Director(s): Shinkai Makoto
Writer(s): Shinkai Makoto
Studio: CoMix Wave
Runtime: 1h 56m
Starring: Kanemoto Hisako, Inoue Kazuhiko, Irino Miyu
Children Who Chase Lost Voices (also known as Journey to Agartha) is Shinkai’s third film.
Watase Asuna is an elementary school student in a rural town. She is generally liked by her peers although she is not close to anyone. Her mother works long hours as a nurse and her father died when she was young, so Asuna is set up as the loner. She likes to listen to her crystal radio at a nearby mountain where she has her hideout, hearing strange music. One day, she encounters a monstrous creature and is rescued by a young boy named Shun who later is reportedly found dead.
Meanwhile, Morisaki Ryuji moves into town as a substitute teacher. In class, he teaches myths regarding the underworld, the realm of the dead.
Asuna then comes across someone resembling Shun, who turns out to be Shun’s younger brother, Shin. Although Mr Morisaki is part of an organization interested in Agartha for selfish gain, he does not share their aims. As a widower, he wishes to resurrect his dead wife, so he chases Shin into Agartha, taking Asuna with him. But Asuna stays for the journey as she has her own wish.
It seems this is Shinkai’s attempt at a fantasy-adventure in the spirit of a Studio Ghibli production by Miyazaki Hayao. Visually, it is nicely done with plenty of wide shots of natural landscapes, ancient ruins and big villages. But this is arguably not a strength of Shinkai’s or his team’s. They are better at cityscapes and the details of everyday life in the city/suburbs or even a rural environment where there is a mix of nature and human civilization consistent to “slice of life”.
Of course, it is understandable artists would want to expand and try something different. Tanji Takumi is the Art Director, he was one of the background artists in 5 Centimeters per Second, and Nishimura Takayo is the Animation Director and Character Designer who also had those roles in 5 Centimeters per Second.
The same can be said for storytelling. Shinkai’s previous films, Voices of a Distant Star and The Place Promised in Our Early Days use a sci-fi premise whereas 5 Centimeters per Second deliberately avoids that. Those films all deal with loss in different ways and Children Who Chase Lost Voices deals with death, a loss that is supposedly permanent.
The film makes allusions to various traditions, eastern, western and central American. I am sure an expert will get more out of it. I am generally suspicious when esoteric symbols are used as often there is some hidden message. If this is the case here, then it is more hidden than usual.
Thankfully, unlike some fantasy works, this doesn’t push the “all myths are true” to the point of implying some one-world religion to disparage and/or replace the current religions. It does what it needs for the story by taking pieces from here and there, enough to establish the existence of the underworld and to give it some texture, but it doesn’t dwell on details. The imagery is mostly related to birth and death as the story and theme demand. In that sense, this approach stands well enough on its own even if it lacks focus at times. This is partly compensated by the simple plot: the main characters’ attempt to deal with death and loss by going from point A to point B.
Those who like fantasy-adventures, especially Studio Ghibli fantasies, will probably enjoy this. It is not elaborate like Spirited Away or Howl’s Moving Castle nor is it meant to be. Nonetheless, it generally looks good as expected from Shinkai. The pacing in the opening act can be a little faster but that is a minor issue. It does not cheaply rely on one monster after another, the film is not a “gauntlet run”. On another comparative note, Shinkai’s works up until this are generally more depressing whereas this adopts a brighter, optimistic tone despite the subject matter.
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