East Meets West #22: Children Who Chase Lost Voices .vs. Journey To The Center Of The Earth

East Meets West #22: Children Who Chase Lost Voices .vs. Journey To The Center Of The Earth

Jules Verne, the famous 19th-century French author of science-fiction, is not a name foreign to me. As a kid, I used to watch the clumsy 2004 adaptation of one of his stories, Around The World In 80 Days, which featured martial artist Jackie Chan and actor Steve Coogan travelling across Europe, Asia and North America in their bid to win a prestigious bet in the name of science. Its original incarnation, written under the guise of an adventure novel, was really meant to showcase the efficacy of the rapid advances made in travel thanks to the advent of railroad systems and steam liners, with the film’s addition of air travel (which would not be a thing until after 1903). His literary contributions have made him synonymous with the genre and implicitly inspired many amazing achievements in the field.

Journey To The Center Of The Earth is another story which has earned a similar culture influence, this time focusing on geology, in a time when dinosaurs and many prehistoric elements were being discovered en masse. It also received several film adaptaions, most notably in its 1959 and 2008 cinematic forms (the latter staring Brendan Fraser from The Mummy). One could even, given enough analysis, consider Makoto Shinkai’s Children Who Chase Lost Voices (From Deep Below) from 2011 as a derivative of this, even with all the mystical throw-ins it made; which is what I exactly concluded, and therefore am dedicating this post to looking at.

Eastern Competitor #22: Children Who Chase Lost Voices (From Deep Below)

Best to call this by its shorter name: “Journey To Agartha”, what are the odds…

Children Who Chase Lost Voices is the third of Makoto Shinkai’s theatrical productions, coming four years after his last one, 5 Centimeters Per Second (from 2007). It focuses on a lonely girl named Asuna Watase who one day unexpectedly joins forces with her teacher, the elusive Ryuji Morisaki, to travel to the underground world of Agartha, a kingdom which has a long history of strife and tension against its human overland counterparts. While Asuna befriends some of its inhabitants, including Shin, the brother of a boy she befriended early on in the film who died, Ryuji makes use of his trip to seek out a life-giving font to revive his dead wife, and be with her once more; an action which will require more sacrifice than he intends.

The movie blends a sense of wonder, discovery, and tension alongside a very profound moral message about the dark side of life, a theme not so foreign to Shinkai’s other works. At the time of its release, thanks to this combination of visuals and content, it was considered as the peak of his theatrical works, and received several award nominations at the Asia-Pacific Screen Awards and the Nippon Cinema Festival in Australia and Frankfurt, respectively; but currently it remains his longest-running work, standing at 116 minutes – only 4 minutes longer than his latest hits Weathering With You and, surprisingly, 9 minutes longer than Your Name.

Western Competitor #22: Journey To The Center Of The Earth

The poster of the 1959 theatrical adaptaion, which we will focus on

The third of Jules Verne’s 54-part literary series, titled Les voyages extraordinaires, was first published in 1864 and was first translated to English in 1871; its enduring legacy is one that needs no further elaboration. The story talks of a university professor, Otto, who finds himself at the crossroads of history when he comes across a lava stone bearing a note from a 16th-century Icelandic explorer, Arne Saknussemm, and is convinced of his account of a world located below the Earth’s crust. He is joined by his nephew Axel, and an illiterate duck farmer named Hans as they venture into the depths of the Earth where no man has gone before – a world filled with geological wonders and creatures long thought to be extinct. For this post’s purposes, we will see the story as told by a 1959 Hollywood adaptation of this story.

Directed by Henry Levin and featuring James Mason, Pat Boone, Arlene Dahl and Thayer David, the film subjected itself to heavy character localization (Yeah, I’m shocked as you are that what 4Kids did had a precedent LOL): Otto is now Oliver, Axel is now Alex, and two new characters, Clara, the widow of Oliver’s deceased colleague, as well as a count of the Saknussem lineage (who I’ll call Steve). It was a commercial success and was nominated for three Academy Awards, mostly in the realm of sound and visuals. As far as its faithfulness to Verne’s source material, I can’t say that the film didn’t take some liberties considering its inclusion of a female character, a villain, and a certain underwater Greek city as a plot device – none of which were present in the source literature.

The Showdown

There isn’t much to compare the films against, other than its story. After all, both are adventure tales featuring a motley expedition crew traveling to an unseen world beyond their wildest imaginations, so I will mainly be focusing on inspecting those elements, and not so much its dramatic or musical value.

Category #1: Exploration Crew

Oliver Lindenbrook, Alex McEwen, and Clara Gothenborg in the caves

Journey To The Center Of The Earth‘s main characters Oliver, Alex, Clara, Hans and Steve are what give the film life, and are exactly what I’d expect out of the story’s premise. They embody a strong-willedness in certain factors: Oliver’s desire to discover what Arne saw, and document it is on par with that of Clara’s ambition to honour her deceased husband (and Oliver’s rival) or Steve’s hardcore survival instincts. Their mental and physical fortitude is something worthy to be applauded – most notably, Clara who is shown capable of standing up to herself against Oliver’s rampant misogyny, eventually winning his heart, or Alex’s immense willingness to never give up amidst the struggles of his voyage. I enjoyed likewise the combination of their personalities to their dynamic, something which was sorely lacking in the novels, as was in Alex’s case.

There the narrative was mostly treated to a back-and-forth between Oliver and Alex where the former explains what they’re seeing and the latter just being the “yes man” of the group. It was hard to sympathize with them or visualize what they were like. But I loved how the movie updated this: giving Oliver a vestige of an analytical hothead being a father figure to the meek and suave Alex (which played into the novel’s depiction of them as uncle/nephew), with Clara and Hans being the headstrong heroine and team mom and the mild-mannered, but helpful big brother respectively. Save for Steve, who I hated not just for his ruthlessness (the way he killed team pet Gertrude to satisfy his hunger was unforgivable) but also for his uselessness to the plot, being as stock a villain only to die just before the big discovery, the characters were pretty solid.

Asuna and Ryuji, the initial members of the ragtag Agartha exploration team

In Children Who Chase Lost Voices, we are treated to the trio of Asuna, Ryuji, and Shin who wander about the underworld kingdom of Agartha in search for a metaphysical treasure of sorts: the meaning of life. We are given backstories where each character feels a sense of loss towards someone important in their life – father, wife, older brother, or friend – and chronicles as they strive to find a way around it, in different ways. Ryuji’s depression caused by the trauma of his wife’s death is what first drives him to seek Agartha’s Gate of Life and Death; this inability to move on horribly backfires as he loses an eye and binds him forever to the land – symbolic of him being stuck in the past forever. Asuna and Shin, on the other hand, experience this character journey of self-revelation and understanding of their losses and how to deal with them healthily. In exploring Agarth’a and all’s boundaries, they realize that some things are best left to history, and rather to keep their memory alive in act and word only. This makes the crux of what this movie offers for contemplation and transcends the adventure aspect.

Good character development was also a prominent thing here, and in terms of personality, I have to say that Ryuji was the strongest character of the bunch, owing largely to his age, maturity and life experience. He was a fearless, cool-headed and supportive figure in contrast to the timid, emotionally unstable sidekick he had in Asuna, or Shin’s tough yet directionless behaviour. Even then, none of them really struck a chord with me, and I thought there was plenty they could improve on here, like making them more expressive and diverse in emotion. At the end of the day, when you put them side-by-side, discrediting age differences, I think it’s safe to say that the Verne quintet were the more fascinating bunch to pay mind to, as being more full of life and sensible personalization, despite the latter’s ethereal strength.

Journey To The Center Of The Earth 1-0 Children Who Chase Lost Voices

Category #2: Underground Worlds

Both Children Who Chase Lost Voices and Journey To The Center Of The Earth hinge on similarity by being part of a genre of works called the “Hollow Earth” stories, featuring worlds beneath ours, and are the centerpiece of exploration in each of the films.

In the former, we’re talking about Agartha, a society with its own culture, architecture and religious traditions, as well as a well-laid-out geography defined by its assortment of villages, ruins, rivers and lush valleys, where humans and mythological creatures, such as the divine yet creepy-in-some-cases Quetzacoatl or the evil horde of zombie-like izoku live amongst each other, much like a medieval RPG. Agartha got some things right: true to Makoto Shinkai’s talent, his ability to immerse you in the world is excellent, not to mention how it mastered the maxim of letting the visuals speak for its own. You see, once a powerful, rich, and independent nation of its own, it now faces desolation thanks to centuries of warfare against human empires from above (named “topsiders”), leaving its people struggling to survive, basically living in primitive conditions.

In its visuals and dialogue, you get a sense of their sorrow and anger at Ryuji and Asuna, who they blame in numerous parts collectively for putting them in their destitute situation, just by being topsiders. Adding onto that is the otherworldly designs of the Quetzacoatl and the izoku, which differentiated themselves from what other works of his would parlay, or the cultural motifs of the inhabitatnts, which I can’t help but imagine are inspired by Aztec art, giving the film’s underworld its own identity. From there, I wasn’t sure what else to make of it, as the worldbuilding fell flat. The relationship between the Quetzacoatl and the humans was vaguely interpreted, and despite the film mentioning their technological brilliance at one point and their low birth-death rate, it failed to justify even a single remnant of it, leaving much to be desired from this worldly wonder.

Whereas Jules Verne’s underground world keeps things pretty simple: populated by long, winding maze of cavernous trails, populated by packs of dinosaurs, crystal chambers, vast oceans and mushroom forests straight out of Super Mario Bros or Jurassic Park. Other than that, aside from these the landscape doesn’t have much to offer, at times downplaying the book – such as when they see a clash between an Ichthyosaurus and a Plesiosaurus. One significant addition to the film that was not in the book was the lost city of Atlantis, which only appeared in another one of his works, 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, which was also the final resting place of Arne Saknussem. This is where the problems begin to pick up. Atlantis is an underwater city, which makes no sense for it to be here, and the reveal of Arne was a great opportunity to pick things up more: perhaps, a letter with his final message and a somber mood to it, but instead nothing really interesting happened.

I guess the question should be rephrased to which of the two handled worldbuilding more competently, because it’s clear that both had their fair share of holes. I’m going to choose Agartha as the more obviously earth-shaking (no pun intended) one, since visuals aside, it was more coherent, expansive and featured a majestic lore more than Verne could muster up.

Children Who Chase Lost Voices 1-1 Journey To The Center Of The Earth

Category #3: Overall Adventure

In Children Who Chase Lost Voices, Asuna and Ryuji’s adventure begins as an escape from a secret military group known as the Archangels, who are looking for Agartha’s immense library of knowledge as their predecessors did; as opposed to the former who want their loved ones back to life. Their journey sees them travel through vast fields, sleep in abandoned villages, fend off against evil zombies, and finally climb down a deep pit to reach the source of life and death itself, where the final battle begins not against an evil entity, but against their own delusions of reality. That’s essentially what this adventure boils down to – a philosophical treatment offering new perspective on life. In large part to that, as well as the exciting bits of action against the izoku or Shin’s spirited bout against the guards near the end. I would be tempted to give this the benefit of being the better film, but let’s not jump too quickly into conclusions.

Journey To The Center Of The Earth is basically a basket-case model of a geological exploratory trip, one which stretched the limits of our imagination, not by making a parallel version of our universe and its complex societies, but by pitting nature to it. It thrives on building suspense, by getting the characters lost, and like us, unaware of what they’ll come across in the dark caverns; not to mention, whether or not they’ll get out alive or find something that can shallow their ever-growing thirst or hunger pains. It’s essentially a race against time and nature, rather than against a mythical kingdom’s forces or a divine entity. The movie does best at drawing you to how magnanimous, and risky the endeavour is, through the lens of the characters: celebrating the characters’ brief moments of success, apprehensive whenever they’re stuck in a rut, like Alex getting lost in the crystal room’s underbelly or Oliver, Hans and Clara escaping from rapidly rushing water, and relieved when they emerge out of a volcano and back on land.

As a narrative, Journey To The Center Of The Earth has the edge; when it comes to morals, Children Who Chase Lost Voices takes the money. But that still begs the question: which was the most enthralling one? Well, when looking at how it progressed: I will say this – Children Who Chase Lost Voices had better storytelling from different angles (Shin to recover a crystal in Asuna’s possession, overlapping with the latter’s life/death struggle), and its direction for adventure and action were some of its stronger points; probably good enough to make one forget about Agartha’s barebones basic lore, but not at all its shoddy ending and lack of balance with focusing on equal synthesis of both story and theme. In terms of the overall progression of story though, look no further than what Jules Verne came up with. The story may be simpler, but I found it to be more satisfying to immerse, and easier to connect with its intrinsic premise and characters.

In addition, it doesn’t leave me with drooling questions like “Why did Ryuji stay behind in Agartha at the end?”, “Why would Asuna care about a boy she barely knew?”, “Is Ryuji, Asuna, or Shin the person I’m supposed to be rooting for?” and other unanswered subplots; but I think it explained and did more than enough to keep itself fresh in my mind. Therefore, I deem it the better-handled hollow-earth adventure among the two.

Final Score: Journey To The Center Of The Earth 2-1 Children Who Chase Lost Voices

Conclusion

The best way to bring an adventure to life is through its content, and examining its impact. This particular flick of Shinkai’s, unfortunately, is leagues away from the works done by the master of worldbuliding and whimsical stories himself, Hayao Miyazaki, and on top of everything, didn’t establish certain things rightly. You won’t find any of those debacles in its Western counterpart: shallow in tone as it is to Children Who Chase Lost Voices, in terms of uniqueness it’s quite another thing: overall, a decent adaptation to what one 19th-century author’s visualization of a world below us, with creatures and ideals that only the imagination can feel like, plus a good crew to carry us along. Sometimes, it’s best to leave ourselves wowed with what content a film can provide, especially one based off a classic item of literature from ages past.

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