Anime Review #53: Children Who Chase Lost Voices (From Deep Below)

Back in my university days, I remember watching a South Park episode called A Ladder To Heaven, where main characters Stan, Kyle and Eric build a “ladder” consisting of other people’s junk to reach the sky, where they believe Heaven is located. Their reason? They want to see their friend, Kenny, who had died of cancer previously, and chat with him over some important matters. That episode was aired in 2002, at the height of the series’ popularity. Nine years later, Makoto Shinkai would also take this idea and mold it into his own vision; the end result is Children Who Chase Lost Voices (From Deep Below), the third film in his ever-growing repertoire and up to this point, and I have to say this, the bloodiest film he’s ever made. The best way to describe this film is as such: Spirited Away and Indiana Jones combined, minus the humor, idiotic sidekicks, treasure hunting, and romance subplots.

This is the last work I will review for the time being that involves either Makoto Shinkai, or collectively as well, Comix Wave Films. Effective next week I’m going to find other works by other directors to spy upon.

CHILDREN WHO CHASE LOST VOICES (FROM DEEP BELOW)

Yo like what’s wrong with the girl’s face, it looks like she’s on the verge of derping or something

Hoshi O Ou Kodomo, as this film is known in Japan, started after 5 Centimeters Per Second‘s development had finished, was released on 7 May of 2011 in Japan, and arrived on North American shores six months later, with a license by Sentai Filmworks, previously responsible for distributing shows such as Himouto! Umaru Chan, K-On, No Game No Life and various other English anime adaptations. The film was nominated for several accolades, but failed to win any; it would take his next film, Garden Of Words to recapture that reputation of an award-winning film.

When I first stumbled upon this film, I thought, based on the title alone, it would be something like the story of St. Joan of Arc, especially the premise that it’s a film about a girl who hears voices from another dimension. How horribly wrong I was – this concept makes up only a very tiny fraction of the whole pie. Instead of a quest that explores the supernatural, it flips the script and takes you on a journey of confronting the realities of (wait for it): death, mourning, longing, moving on, and finding strength in times of consolation – you know, for kids! Apparently, Shinkai came up with the concept of this film while on vacation in England (a land with hilly features like such in this film), and noted his desire to expand upon some of his film’s recent themes on this subject. Considering how sensitive a topic this is, it’s a wonder this film managed to pass the preliminary planning stages; in my experience, North American children’s media (with the exception of a few like Sesame Street) tends to stay very far away this hot-button issue.

PLOT

Set in an unknown Japanese rural town in 1973, Asuna Watase is an 11-year old girl who spends most of her free time listening to a homemade music player, powered by a blue crystal given to her by her late father. She hopes to be able to hear sounds emanating from below, which she describes as a music that makes her both happy and sad simultaneously; that day, she hears that sound, but only briefly before she gets home. One day after school, en route to her usual hangout spot, she is attacked by a giant bear of unknown species, but is rescued by Shun, a boy who hails from an foreign land known as Agartha, who she quickly befriends and spends time with. Their friendship quickly blossoms to a brief kiss on the forehead, which leaves Asuna flustered yet willing to regroup with Shun the following day. Not long after she leaves, he loses consciousness and dies from falling over the edge.

I’ll take “Statements I Call BS On” for $400, Alex.

Asuna’s mother, who comes home early in the morning to spend the day with her daughter, breaks to her the news of Shun’s death, which she at first attempts to deny as a mistake, but leaves her in grief. At the same time, her homeroom teacher goes on maternity leave and is temporarily replaced by Ryuji Morisaki, who fascinates her with his telling of the Japanese myth of Izanami and Izanagi. After learning in class about how Izanagi went through Hell and back to get his deceased wife back, she meets with him after school, and fascinates him with her knowledge of Agartha. He quickly reveals some secrets about the world and its ancient mythology, including its gods, known as the Quetzalcoatl, who were driven underground with its inhabitants.

Asuna leaves her teacher’s place and heads back home, pondering what they had discussed, but is interrupted when her cat Mimi pursues a twinkling object at her hangout, which leads her to Shin, a boy who looks exactly like Shun, holding the same crystal as she has, but is of a more colder personality, and becomes the target of pursuit by a group known as the Archangels, who hope to find Agartha for themselves. As Asuna gets caught up in the traffic by a reluctant Shin, they are cornered by the Archangels’ leader, who turns out to be Ryuji himself, who persuades her to surrender the crystal – a key to Agartha – and after unlocking the stony portal with it, the three of them venture into the mysterious land. It is here that Ryuji reveals his true ambitions for searching out this place: to find a way to resurrect his deceased wife, Lisa, who died 10 years prior to the film’s events, and whose grief he has been unable to live with. Conflicted between her fear of the unkonwn and her desire to see Shun again, or whatever remnant of him exists, she follows him into the borders of Agartha, which composes of a lake of breathable water, the vita aqua.

Upon arriving, the two discover the whole nation has turned into a shell of its former glory; a wasteland, broken down by wars, and where Earthlings are derisively referred to as “Topsiders” – Asuna and Ryuji included. During the journey, the two begin to bond with each other, with Ryuji slowly accepting his role as Asuna’s father figure, and making it his personal mission to keep her away from harm’s path. Asuna manages to reunite with Shin as well, following an escape attempt from a group of zombie-like beings known as the izoku, along with another villager child, who reveals that he’s out to retrieve the crystal from before. Following a brief confrontation with him and Ryuji, they take shelter in a nearby village – one of the last remnants of Agarthan civilization, and continue towards their destination: the Gate Of Life And Death, with Shin and some village guards in pursuit of them.

Arriving at the Gate Of Life And Death, demarcated by a large chasm, Ryuji proceeds downwards while Asuna, despite the former’s encouragement, is struck with terror at the thought of descent, leaving her to fend for herself from the growing pack of izoku. She is nearly devoured by them, but a recently disgraced Shin comes to her rescue. They reconcile and find common ground with their admiration for Shun, and thanks to a nearby Quetzalcoatl, they reach the Gate Of Life And Death just in time as Ryuji makes his wish to resurrect his wife. However, this comes at a cost: he must find a living host to contain her soul, and pays with the loss of an eye; that host turns out to be Asuna, much to his fear; but Shin manages to break her out of her involvement by destroying the crystal, freeing her from Lisa’s control. With that, a devastated Ryuji is encouraged by both his wife and Shin to “live and let go”. In the final segment, Asuna returns home to Japan and is last seen graduating from elementary school, but never forgetting the memories and lessons Shin and Ryuji have imparted on her.

WHAT I LIKED

  • First, let’s talk about the handling of the subject matter of death and all. I found that the film managed to handle this quite well. It was serious, and not taken lightly; but at the same time, it was handled in a way that was mature, without having to dumb down things for the sake of lightheartedness. Through scenes like Asuna’s family dealing with the loss of their father, Ryuji’s final moments with Lisa, or the death of Asuna’s pet cat Mimi, “Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted” (St. Matthew 5:4) was made clear thanks to the film’s outstanding visuals and presentation. Films like these remind me how much I appreciate stories with a deep philosophical/religious tone to them.
  • The adventure was an entertaining one. Asuna and Ryuji’s chronicles throughout this faraway land had the markings of Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, except that the obstacles they face were amped up, the monsters both good and bad equally mystifying if not terrifying, and all this spread out over a vast world with no rhyme or reason to its existence. The whole adventure premise seemed ripped right out of Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade, especially with regards to the life-giving font Ryuji is after.
  • I liked the pacing of the film – it’s slow, steady, and definitely doesn’t try to rush plot points for the sake of finishing the story. Not to mention, it progression was linear and doesn’t try to burden the viewer with unresolved subplots or anything of that sort. Good that a film can keep things simple yet mark out a powerful moral lesson simultaneously.
Exploring the characters’ past experiences with the loss of a loved one was one thing that this film did fine at, and really built up some feels for us on the characters’ part.

WHAT I DISLIKED

  • The ending was way too abrupt for my tastes. It doesn’t explain how they managed to get out from the chasm, which as explained through Ryuji’s descent is very deep (was there a hidden stairway? or did they climb out through an unknown flying vessel?), why he decided to stay behind in Agartha at the end, or the extremely vague conditions left behind by the freaky-eyed Agarthan god to his wishes.
  • Needless to say, world-building has not been a strong point in Shinkai’s works, and this is no exception. While we know that Agartha is a civilization where humans and gods live with each other, and that they have been at the forefront of wars against Earthlings which led to their hatred of such, it doesn’t really go into detail as to the continued decline of their civilization, the extremely poor birth-death ratio, their leadership, traditions, etc. It’s a far cry from Miyazaki’s storytelling and how he handles the character/fantasy lores. Even the relationship between humans and the Quetzalcoatl, which Ryuji stresses during his post-class lecture to Asuna isn’t well-explored save for one scene where the recently deceased Mimi is offered as a sacrifice to one of them.

CHARACTERS

This film is unique compared to Shinkai’s previous three works because, unlike those ones which simply have the characters serve as chess pieces, this one has character development thrown into the mix. Asuna, Shin and Ryuji, the film’s three main characters, are bonded by their grief over a loss of a loved one (father, brother, and wife respectively). Their experience in Agartha and with each other help them to reshape their view on how to approach death; not by constant mourning and painful living, but rather with gratitude and reflection of how that person’s life helped them in their life. Shinkai did a fair job at getting me to sympathize with the characters, with the realism of the pain and suffering they felt, and it helped that they were able to convey the film’s theme in a clear-cut manner.

That being said, they are not perfect. I found Asuna, who is supposed to be the lead heroine character to be very underwhelming, seeing how she doesn’t do much other than frolic around and get herself captured – all before the final 20 minutes of the film, and often times overshadowed by Ryuji’s maturity and experience. The roles of the civilians of Agartha, reduced to a small handful ,and that of the neighboring Quetzalcoatl gods was also not explored very well. Although Ryuji explains in the first half that the latter acts as a sort of divine buddy to the humans, the film offers us nothing much that is indicative of such. To be honest, I felt like they were only there as a means of giving the viewer a brief taste of eye-horror.

MUSIC

Anri Kumaki’s sentimental ballad, fittingly named Hello, Goodbye And Hello, acts as the film’s signature song. Like 5 Centimeters Per Second and The Place Promised In Our Early Days before it, it only plays at the end of the film, and by far it’s perfect – not only for the atmosphere of the film, but because of how meaningful and appreciative the song’s premise is to the overall message the film tries to convey. Musically speaking, it’s the high point of the film, in stark contrast to the other soundtrack bits, which unfortunately lack in the adventurous grandiosity one would typically expect to find in a fantasy adventure flick.

“Hello, Goodbye And Hello” from Anri Kumaki, the film’s send-off song.

FAVORITES

Favorite quote: Shin’s explanation of the Quetzacoatl’s swan song at the chasm marking the Gate Of Life And Death was poignant, effectively exercising the main point of the film as to how we should handle loss: not with continued suffering, but by being happy with the impact they left behind in their life.

Before they die, the Quetzalcoatl… sing a song containing all of their memories. This goes out, changing the form of things everywhere. Without us noticing it, the vibrations in the air enter our bodies and intermix within us. By doing this, they make sure their memories exist for eternity, somewhere within the world.

Shin narrates the Quetzalcoatl’s final moments

It parallels one thing which his late brother, Shun, said when he first met Asuna; one of fulfillment and leaving behind a legacy without regret which the aforementioned being conveys. It screams out several Bible verses to mind:

  • “Heaven and earth shall pass, but my words shall not pass.” (St. Matthew 24:35)
  • “Behold I am with you all days, even to the consummation of the world.” (St. Matthew 28:20)
  • “Remember your prelates who have spoken the word of God to you; whose faith follow, considering the end of their conversation, Jesus Christ, yesterday, and to day; and the same for ever.” (St. Paul to the Hebrews, 13:7-8)
  • “For I delivered unto you first of all, which I also received: how that Christ died for our sins, according to the scriptures…” (St. Paul to the Corinthians 15:3)

Favorite character: Ryuji Morisaki is a character I sympathize best with, being part of a group suffering from what I call the “Jay Gatsby Syndrome”. His backstory, gruff personality and academic character make me at times feel like he is the true hero of the film, even if his ambitions are a bit flawed. Not to mention, he’s a throwback, albeit in reverse, of Gendo Ikari from Neon Genesis Evangelion.

Children Who Chase Lost Voices: a family flick for all ages? I beg to differ.

Favorite moment: The part where Shin saves Asuna from the izoku onslaught, coming to terms with each other and their reason for doing what they did came off as one of my favorite moments of the film. Exciting start, heartfelt finish; but overall, nice way to set up character relationships.

CONCLUSION

Considering how it’s Lent, a time when Traditionalists reflect on the incoming Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ, I find the timing of my viewing of this film fitting, to say the least. But that aside, at times this film feels like another copy of a Ghibli film or Steven Spielberg work; but likewise, Children Who Chase Lost Voices finds a way to get its main message across clearly through its story and character dynamics. However, where it triumphs in these two categories, it fails at world-building, plot resolutions and music. Rather than describe this as a fantasy-adventure flick and leave oneself disappointed, it’s best to see, and enjoy this film through a religiously-inspired lens – albeit nothing like how you would approach a work like St. Alphonsus Liguori’s Preparation For Death or St. Thomas More’s Utopia.

SCORE: 7/10

12 thoughts on “Anime Review #53: Children Who Chase Lost Voices (From Deep Below)

  1. Looks like we both gave it the same score for the same movie! I thought it was good, but nowhere near as good as Shinkai’s other works. I thought Shinkai was fanboying on Miyazaki WAY too much. It does handle the subject matter well, but I wouldn’t let children watch that movie. I do think it was strange with the other world being called Agartha because that’s the same name as the planet in Voices of a Distant Star.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Aha interesting to know Osprey! Yes I could even tell the Ghibli influences from the moment they entered into Agartha. Likewise for the claim that it’s not really suitable for kids.

      I’m interested to check your review on this film now that you mention it πŸ™‚

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yep! It was a bit of a “blogger doppelganger” moment that Ashley Capes and I joke about given our reviews as well as what we’ve covered. All three of us have reviewed that same movie, too! I wouldn’t say it ripped off Ghibli, but there were HEAVY Miyazaki influences especially with the Agartha scenes. It got a TV-PG rating in America which was a tiny bit surprising since this has some of the most violent scenes I’ve ever seen in a Shinkai flick (Voices of a Distant Star being a close 2nd).

        Feel free to check it out!

        Liked by 2 people

      2. Thank you! Very interesting insight, I like how we share many of the same points in our reviews of this film! πŸ™‚

        I read somewhere that Miyazaki’s “Castle In The Sky” was an inspiration for his film, and having seen it myself back in January I can definitely confirm a high plausibility of this.

        Liked by 2 people

      3. You’re welcome. I’ve certainly noticed it, too! Especially since I tend to have some contrary opinions on different media, it can be fascinating seeing someone noticing the same things.

        Oh, yeah. That doesn’t surprise me at all. You can see that and other Miyazaki films playing a part of these influences.

        Liked by 2 people

      4. Certainly! When I first saw the moment Asuna and Ryuji enter Agartha, in a Nostalgia Critic fashion this exact sequence played in my head:

        “Wait a minute. We have a professor who dresses in brown, a mythical world, a semi-useless female sidekick, and a search for a mystical treasure that makes up the plot… this is basically Indiana Jones right!?!? *Cue the Indiana Jones theme* Nah, it’s gotta be a dumbed down Spirited Away.” πŸ˜‚πŸ˜‚πŸ˜‚

        Liked by 2 people

  2. Hello! I just discovered your blog, and I’m delighted to find a fellow Catholic anime fan. I appreciate how you call out the religious overtones and connect them with Scripture.
    I realize I’m in the minority here, but this is actually my favorite of Shinkai’s films, and I consider it vastly underrated. What many see as a rip-off of Miyazaki, I think of as a fond continuation of the Ghibli style through Shinkai’s thematic lens. I acknowledge the drawbacks you mentioned, though I would point out that several of Miyazaki’s classics have similarly abrupt resolutions and open-ended worldbuilding that leaves much to the audience’s imagination. I think this film’s varied themes of moving on from death (whether that of a parent, spouse, sibling, or pet) somehow spoke to me more deeply than other viewers, but I’m still glad you got to see it and bring a little more attention to it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for the kind words, and welcome to my blog! πŸ‘‹ Glad to find another Catholic who enjoys anime here!

      Don’t get me wrong, its positives are quite up there like you mentioned, and some of its theme treatment reminds me of another similar flick “5 Centimeters Per Second” and its take on unrequited love and all. Personally though the Ghibli films I’ve seen seemed to end smoothly and tie up all the loose ends rather well, but I’m interested to know if there are any examples on your end πŸ™‚ I’m glad you liked this film though, I can agree it was one of his better pre-Your Name works.

      Like

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