Makoto Shinkai Retrospective: Children who Chase Lost Voices

Ever since I was a newspaper critic, a variety of problems with a rating system have always nagged at me despite the public's demand for it. The blatant misunderstanding over how a star rating is not a rigid, one-size-fits-all system  (A three-star review to a Martin Scorsese film is not the same as a similar rating to the couple of Adam Sandler movies I can't help but like). There's the laziness of an audience that takes the number of the review or if it's positive or negative and throws away everything else for a context-free pissing contest (Insulting my audience right off the bat. I'm doing well here). Then there's my own little issue where sometimes the ratings completely fail. There are the four-star movies I know are important and great works of filmmaking, and then there's the three-and-a-half start movies that are more obviously flawed or more standard that I love and cherish far more than the greats (The Princess and the Pilot is a movie that's built on a large foundation of conventions, and I adore it and want as many people to know it exists). Then there'e the not-quite-good movies that I enjoy more than many actually good ones. I'm not talking about the Ed Wood type of film. I'm talking about titles like Hackers which are not what I'd call good for a variety of reasons, but are enjoyable and have enough good in them to where if it's on, I'll watch the hell out of it.

This little bit of review theory is a long setup just to tell you Children who Chase Lost Voices is an extremely weird movie for me to discuss in a critical arena. I don't think it works. Makoto Shinkai's comparisons to Hayao Miyazaki have been ludicrous ever since the first desperate anime peddler tossed it out there, and a movie where Shinkai is literally trying to imitate the grandmaster only amplifies the differences between the two men. He's more like if Yoshifumi Kondo (Whisper of the Heart) hadn't died in 1998 and he's continuing that work (They both hold middle school as some kind of holy experience. What middle school did they go to?). This is a movie with some really ill-fitting parts, oddities, and occasional indifference in a fantasy adventure to a great and fantastic unknown. Yet I want it to work, and so much of it does work that I get drawn into it, hypnotized by moments right up until scenes such as when monsters that can only hunt in darkness carry off our heroine in the middle of the night and then wait HOURS until she's awake and surrounded by sunlight to consume her. Right. Still, I've watched this movie five times. I'm fascinated by it more than I would be a movie where I came out saying, "Hey, that was enjoyable." So let's dive into one of these curious cases.

Asuna is a self-sufficient middle schooler with a deceased father and a mother who works a night shift as a nurse (But is thankfully not one of the Night Shift Nurses. DON'T WATCH THAT, by the way). We meet her napping by a rusted-out railroad... as one does. She's an extremely bright girl, but is a bit thin on socialization despite being the class representative. She'd rather pass the time searching her crystal diode radio on a nook overlooking her small, mountainside town with wandering cat Mimi. One day on her wanderings by the train tracks, she runs into a bear-like creature and is only saved by Shun, a fangirls' dream amalgamation of a Miyazaki teenage boy. He's handsome, heroic-yet-gentle, and gets a real swoon-worthy moment. If he turned into a dragon, it'd be all over for us straight men. It's like the movie recognized he's too perfect as he dies out of site of Asuna about five minutes after being introduced by one of those movie illnesses where absolutely nothing is wrong until he suddenly drops over dead. Characters dying simply because this is a movie about accepting death happens more than once here.

In town, Asuna's teacher is replaced due to maternity leave by Mr. Morisaki, a solemn man who spends most of his class time talking about the various forms of the underworld. What we know is he's part of the suspicious-looking men who collected the remains of the bear monster, so he's more than just a sub. The threads begin to come together when Asuna returns to her hideaway to fine Shin, Shun's far more surly brother. He's looking for Shun's pendant which contains a Clavis, a crystal that allows entrance into Agartha, the actual underworld featuring the gate between life and death. Also looking for the Clavis are Arch Angel, a group of people with vague goals to discover the secrets of eternity who use military hardware to accomplish it. Can you guess who's a part of Arch Angel? 

Events lead to them into Agartha and Asuna travels with Mr. Morisaki, who left his team behind to search for a way to revive his wife (She died of an illness that actually feels like a real illness). What they find is plenty of open fields and ruins after decades of armies trying to discover its secrets tearing it apart. The remaining citizens are rightfully suspicious of Topsiders while the open world has Izoku, demons that hide in shadow and seem very interested in consuming Asuna. Oh yeah, and the underworld has a sky. No stars, but at night, it has long stretches of aurora. If you know anything about how the sky and aurora work, this is very suspicious, but even in a hidden world beneath the earth, you can't take the sky away from Shinkai.

The first quarter is actually some of the best stuff Shinkai's done. It's using Miyazaki's aesthetic to make a Shinkai movie (Though old-style animation for the character designers seems to mean Shin Megami Tensei sideburns. In the commentary track on the Blu-ray, it is said it takes place in the seventies, so it makes sense). Great pains were made to replicate hand-drawn animation, going as far as to hire an animation assistant who worked at Ghibli and using The Answer Studio Co. made up of former members of Walt Disney Studios of Japan (They mostly did a lot of the Disney sequels that barely qualified for theatrical). They did time-consuming key animation like a shot of a car driving over train tracks without CG or going the extra mile in displaying Mimi's behavior as a cat. Also in the commentary track, every location in the village is discussed as being "very difficult" or "a nightmare" to design because there was so much detail to put in. I'll probably bring up the commentary track often because Shinkai is surprisingly transparent for an auteur with what exactly he's trying to express, how he's doing it, and what certain aspects really mean. It's extremely informative from that standpoint, though they do have a penchant for stating the obvious ("This is a scary scene").

The script establishes Asuna as a character without blatant info dumps and gives a human ambiguity, but some details for the characters feel more like they're simply not developed well. Shin has a friend in his hometown who's dropped from the movie right after we meet her. This probably has to do with a scene similar to Princess Mononoke as he cuts his hair and renounces his past. But Ashitaka had some key details like his mount Yakul is a character in of itself and Shinkai laughs in the commentary about how he didn't even think to give Shin's horse a name (Maybe he's a fan of the band America). As mentioned before, the Izoku take Asuna with the notion of consuming her and then leave her in a place that most exploits their weakness. Later on, she stays in water to keep away from them as it's another weakness of theirs and the movie can think of nothing other than the water suddenly disappearing to create danger. The beginning 30 minutes and the last 15 are solid, but the path to get there is wobbly and cobbled together.

I joke about some of the aspects, but there is a very strange sense that Shinkai isn't particularly interested in the underworld and the adventure that takes place within it. The devil's in the details and comparing what the movie spends a whole lot of time on and what it barely addresses gets fascinating results. Take the bear-like creature that's on the train tracks at the beginning. It turns out to be one of the Quetzal Coatl (I have no idea if splitting it into two words is an intentional choice, or the people in charge of the subtitles saw a typed-up Engrish page Morisaki was writing on the subject and went with it), guardians of the planet that are usually benign. Why did it attack? Because pollution sometimes makes them forget their purpose and they go berserk. This is brought up once and then never becomes a thing again. This is a loose thread utilizing the theme of environmentalism that runs through Miyazaki movies, but it's a single, disconnected piece. Compare this to Asuna's house to how she feels towards certain parts of her life. The village is loaded with thoughtful details and lovely set pieces. Even when Shun arrives, there's a certain sweetness. Then Shin shows up and has to rush Asuna into the heart of the actual story, and it doesn't feel the same. There is less detail in the surroundings and the locations that seem like they should have a wealth of knowledge in simply being there are bare and unmemorable. The script also becomes as scattered as the villages in Agartha. Shin has a close friend who is introduced and then dropped, probably as part of Shin's arc where he resembles Ashitaka from, which had location scouts work endlessly to provide details to a place where her family cluttered it up for decades. Maybe it's just me or maybe Shinkai never wanted to leave the village.

My best guess is the team assembled was extremely skilled at scouting and recreating Japanese locations, but when it came to using Middle Eastern and Tibetan inspirations for Agartha, didn't have quite as much knowledge to properly fill out the world. There are windmills standing against falling towers, massive cities crumbled, and none of it is particularly striking. This is supposed to be the most eye-opening stuff, isn't it?

Following that up, there are revelations you'd think would be a big deal but aren't. This may come off as a spoiler, but Asuna's father turns out to be from Agartha. "Half-breeds" are much-derided by the underworld and a delicacy for Izoku, but what does it mean for Asuna? Who was her father?  How did he get to the surface, why, and what's the story between him and her mother? Part of processing death is understanding who the deceased were and celebrating what they meant. I know having subtle undercurrents to major points has precedence in a Shinkai feature, but this seems like a vital part of the movie got discarded. This isn't a questions like how the tenants of the underworld held off the Nazi war machine if the best of what they had was long barrels from the 1700s. Yes, it's a sticking point in my brain, but it's not essential if the question never has an answer. A serious movie about processing grief where we get to know the bare minimum about the subject of that grief seems off.

My theory is the movie started as just going to be a story about Asuna living her own little existence until her substitute teacher comes in and she slowly connects to him about the death. She was little and didn't understand what had happened while he can't let it go. From opposite ends they both help other other find ways to deal with their pain, whether it's invisible or always there. That's kind of in this film, but the camera's zoomed out of it, revealing the wide expanses of Agartha as well. That said, Morisaki definitely makes a good villain-who's-not-really-a-villain from a Ghibli movie. He's obsessed with saving his wife and willing to do anything to get it done, but he's not a bad guy. There are particularly well done exchanges where he's trying to be a caring, patient adult, but has occasional lapses because he doesn't really know how to interact with a kid on a personal level. It was never a thing that came up.

With all of this, the main issue arises that Asuna is a passive lead, which doesn't work for an adventure. Miyazaki had strong girl characters with a desire and drive to do something, and Asuna is getting dragged along by Morisaki and Shin through the underworld without her own initiative. It's hard to have any sense of wonder witnessing the hidden land when the lead doesn't seem particularly enthralled or engaged by it. I do understand the entire thrust of her arc is she doesn't realize what she wants or even what's going on in her life, but everybody at least consciously wants something and Asuna only gets determined in cases of life and death. Shinkai's blind spot has always been writing female characters, and while he's improving here, Asuna is not enough to carry the entire movie.

Shinkai's visual trademarks are still here, but much of the time, his vision feels half covered over by the need to be more epic. A gorgeous rice paddy will be surrounded by other buildings that clutter up the layout. The skies Shinkai is famous for get covered up by the foreground (One especially intrusive moment where a rainbow is out and begging to be looked at and the focus is on the wrong side of a bunch of stone). Tenmon's music-always a bright spot-also takes a hit in the effort to widen the scope. His main theme is wonderful, but every time he has to make something grand, it either tries to take over too much of the emotional burden or doesn't register. The battle themes poke out through everything on screen to shout, "DA DA! THIS IS THE BATTLE THEME!"

After all of this, the last 15 minutes finally get everything almost right. Shinkai's vision is cleaned up and the movie finally pushes matter between what Asuna and Morisaki want. There's one hell of an extended fight scene with Shin even with a few continuity errors when it switches angles. Everything comes together in a meaningful way. My only reservation is Asuna once again assumes a passive role in the finale and has to be saved a couple times. You can argue about what a strong female character is or isn't until you're blue in the face, but what's wrong here is the protagonist is a passenger in their own story. Overall, though, the film finally gets that these characters need something that moves them, both physically and emotionally, and for Shin, it's more than simply everybody thinks his brother is perfect, he sucks, and that just pisses him off (Though as the younger brother of a much more successful guy, I get it).

What we have is a good beginning, a good ending, and a middle that sags, wanders, and occasionally loses its purpose. Even so, there are plenty of small moments within which shows talented people making a real effort to enhance the feature. If you'll remember a scene in Spirited Away where Chihiro sits down and eats a rice ball and the full impact of what's transpired hits her emotionally. Thoughtful details like that exist, like Asuna suddenly perking up when the prospect of a bath is brought up, or the few times Morisaki drops his facade and has a genuine reaction to something. It simply lacks an amazing journey to take all of these aspects and tie them together. There is just enough quality in it to keep me coming back to see if I missed something. Occasionally, I find I did. Still not enough to call it a good movie, but I would certainly say it's worth watching to see if it works enough for you. In the realm of Ghibli-inspired adventures, would you rather watch Origin: Spirits of the Past? No. The answer is no, people under 20.


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