Children Who Chase Lost Voices [星を追う子ども Hoshi o Ou Kodomo] (2011)
AKA Children Who Chase Lost Voices From Deep Below, Journey to Agartha
Starring Hisako Kanemoto, Kazuhiko Inoue, Miyu Irino, Junko Takeuchi, Funiko Orisaka, Sumi Shimamoto, Tamio Ohki, Rina Hidaka
Directed by Makoto Shinkai
After watching the luscious visuals of 5 Centimeters Per Second, I just couldn’t keep away from Makoto Shinkai’s latest film any longer. The allure of a fantasy world seen through Shinkai’s visual style was just too strong. I certainly got some wonderful fantasy world visuals, and I loved those quite a bit even if they weren’t the best Shinkai has produced.
Unfortunately, the promotional art that reminded me so much of a Studio Ghibli production proved a little too true. The spunky female lead was certainly reminiscent of any number of Ghibli films, and her jittery cat bore a definite similarity to the squirrel-foxes of Nausicaa and Laputa. Inspiration is one thing, but this crosses that fine line into rip-off. And when the scene from Princess Mononoke of Ashitaka saying goodbye to his sister was copied almost exactly, it was nothing short of depressing.
I know Makoto Shinkai can come up with his own ideas. I’ve seen him do it before. This sudden cribbing of Miyazaki’s notebook is baffling. Perhaps fame has gotten to him, and he’s just not trying anymore. Maybe the pressure to make another great film led him to grasp at anything he thought people would want. This is his most collaborative project yet, so perhaps other staff put pressure on him to incorporate Miyazaki’s style. Whatever went wrong here, this blatant copying left a bad taste in my mouth, and the end result is a film that doesn’t feel like a Makoto Shinkai film.
The story itself is somewhat difficult to summarize, but the core story is an ancient one. At least as old as the epic of Gilgamesh, which was written a good 4,000 years ago. In short, it’s a quest into the underworld to bring a loved one back from the dead. In this modern take on it, a girl named Asuna follows her teacher on his quest to revive his dead wife. There are a lot more complications than that, but it’s a good enough summary for the purposes of this review.
It’s clear that even though Asuna has her own convoluted reasons for being there, she is not Makoto Shinkai’s character. She always feels a bit out of place, an intruder into Shinkai’s world, and he doesn’t really know what to do with her. Shinkai’s themes are far better embodied by the teacher and his despondent quest to resurrect his wife. As much as I liked Asuna and her own story, I can’t help but think the film would have been better without her, simply because she is such a pastiche of Miyazaki heroines.
I don’t mean to spend my entire review complaining about this one fact. There are some great moments full of pure wonder, and in between those copied moments it often made me forget the scenes that lacked any creativity. This leaves me highly torn in my opinions of this film. It irritates me in its weaker moments, but at the same time, it is a well-made story with plenty of moments that I loved. I can’t come to a solid conclusion about it.
The best part of this film is exactly what I expected: its gorgeous world. I think Makoto Shinkai may be better at representing the real world, but perhaps that’s simply that I expect a fantasy world to look majestic and wonderful, whereas I don’t expect a local fast food restaurant to be as gorgeous as in 5 Centimeters. But Shinkai’s second best is still great, and the grown-over ruins that dot the landscape are immersive and fascinating. The underworld and its residents feel like a real world that might be waiting under our feet. As a fantasy fan, this aspect of the film is superb. He does return to a small amount of CG animation, which was pleasantly absent in 5 Centimeters, but it is done as tastefully as such things can be done and blends into the rest of the film fairly well.
I also love the core story of the film. Lovers separated by death is a natural extension of Shinkai’s usual themes of distant relationships, and he handles it well. This is also the most structured of his films, and actually has a genuine ending. Although I am now wondering how much of that is derived from the heavy Miyazaki influence. Nevertheless, the story and the in-depth world it inhabits are standout features of this film.
The film is ultimately a copy of Miyazaki’s style and themes, but I doubt there is anyone other than Shinkai that could have made such a blatant rip-off as well crafted and entertaining as Children Who Chase Lost Voices is. And when Shinkai’s own themes show through, they are solid, although I did get the feeling that his heart really wasn’t in it this time. I can only hope that he’s learned his lesson and goes back to doing his own material. If this kind of Ghibli pastiche doesn’t bug you, then this is a film you will probably have a great time with. Even over the course of this review, however, I have felt my memories of this movie focus more on the disappointments than the joys, and it has ended up as my least favorite of Shinkai’s films so far.