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Children Who Chase Lost Voices from Deep Below – Review

by Miguel Douglas

@isugoi

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A young girl named Asuna who spends her solitary days listening to the mysterious music emanating from the crystal radio she received from her late father as a memento. One day while walking home she is attacked by a fearsome monster and saved mysterious boy named Shun. However, Shun disappears and Asuna embarks on a journey of adventure to the land of Agartha with her teacher Mr. Morisaki to meet a Shun again. Through her journey she comes to know the cruelty and beauty of the world, as well as loss.

As a director, Makoto Shinkai has found quite the success within a relatively short period of time within the field of animation. With two impressive films already under his belt—works that include the visually stunning The Place Promise in Our Early Days (2004) and 5 Centimeter Per Second (2007)—he has already been labeled by various critics as the “Next Miyazaki”. Quite a strong appraisal for sure, given that he has written and directed only three feature-length films and several short films and television segments. Compare this to Miyazaki’s rather outstanding and impactful breadth of past works, and you can see that while the comparison can be made—and even justifiable to some capacity—the fact remains that Shinkai simply doesn’t have the work behind him to elicit such a comparison. Couple this with Shinkai’s adherence towards not truly implementing different thematic qualities in his films, and you can see that his growth as a writer and director has become somewhat fixated on one particular genre—that of romance—without venturing towards exploring a more broad appeal within his works. With Children Who Chase Lost Voices from Deep Below, it is apparent that Shinkai is aiming to establish that crossover appeal, bringing about a film that may alienate fans of his previous works, but also garner him respect for his willingness to widen his creative sphere as a director.

It would be wise to mention that Children Who Chase Lost Voices from Deep Below is unlike any of Shinkai’s past films. Expanding upon creating a more realized world than his previous works, the film imagines a breathtaking alternate world—known here as Agartha—that exists in the center of the Earth. With a worldly background quite reminiscent to Mesoamerican culture in its usage of mythology, attire, and architecture, the film is easily Shinkai’s most imaginative and creative setting as of yet. Always a strong point within his creations, the visual quality of the film is certainly it’s strongest attribute. From the lush country backdrops of Asuna’s home town, to the vast mountainous and rolling plains found in Agartha, the environments of Children Who Chase Lost Voices from Deep Below are some of the most impressive scenery viewed in an animated film for quite some time. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for the film’s characters, many which aren’t particularly creative in their design. This has always been somewhat of a weak spot for Shinkai, where the locales of his films are considerably more elaborate in appearance than the character themselves. There are numerous characters throughout the film that are strikingly similar to the designs brought forth by Studio Ghibli, which may further comparisons between the two directors, not in the likes of creativity, but for Shinkai and character designer Takayo, Nishimura they would appear to be simply imitating the style of Miyazaki. Whether this stems from the facial features of the characters, to even the Quetzal Coatl creatures found within Agartha, the similarities are certainly visible and apparent. Perhaps if Shinkai pushed to retain more of his own visual styling in terms of the characters and creatures, the film would’ve been more distinctive in this sense, but the similarities don’t necessarily help the film to any degree. With his own stylistic touch and visual flair seen throughout the environments he creates, Shinkai should be subject towards improving the character design to the same degree, with Nishimura following suit.

Putting visuals aside though, the narrative of the film is also somewhat different in its approach. Those looking for significant traits of romance to be the focus of the film—a prominent aspect his past films—won’t see much of that here. This in itself may come as a surprise to some viewers expecting the film to be centered on romantic themes resulting in first crushes or loving embraces, traits that Shinkai has proven to be adept in portraying in the past. While some of these themes still find their way into the narrative, they certainly don’t take precedence over what is essentially a tale centered significantly on loss and the emotional costs it takes to overcome that loss. This is certainly a new direction for Shinkai, as it has the film dealing with a diverse range of genres that definitely expand the depth of his abilities as a director. As such, Shinkai is essentially exploring new ground within Children Who Chase Lost Voices from Deep Below, which in turn—as with anyone trying something new for the first time—showcases that he has some difficulty with the material at hand. While there are sporadic moments of familiarity to Shinkai’s previous works showcased towards the beginning of the film, once the film enters the world of Agartha, it exceedingly becomes a rather uneven combination of action segments and dramatic interventions. This approach does indeed break away from Shinkai’s conventional directorial style, but it also shows his shortcomings as a writer to fully develop such an expansive narrative as the one seen within the film—and the various genres that coincide with it. Given the scope of the film’s story, the film’s central theme seems to be that of loss and dealing with the ramifications of that loss. As most of Shinkai’s previous films focused on the act of separating from a loved one in some capacity, he approaches Children Who Chase Lost Voices from Deep Below from a different perspective, this time focusing specifically on the aftermath of losing that special individual. This is where he does excel at as writer—perhaps due to it being familiar territory for him—bringing about a rather truthful reflection upon such a saddening issue. While this thematic quality of the film is present throughout, it appears most prominently at the film’s conclusion, which provides the film with an emotional backing that is unfortunately quickly concluded.

Given that this was a considerable task for Shinkai and studio CoMix Wave—it was their most expensive undertaking yet, which should be duly noted—one should view the film simply as a preview to Shinkai’s considerable potential as a director more so than being a film that can stand alongside his stunning previous works. The ambitious nature of the film doesn’t particularly play well to Shinkai’s strengths, but it does allow him to test the waters surrounding such ambitious narratives, hopefully further developing his talent in the future. If more effort were implemented towards expanding the intricate and universal theme of loss, the film would’ve easily been viewed as a significant step in improving upon its rather superficial premise. While fans of his previous works will certainly find the film as a great departure from many of the elements that made him famous, one can see the imaginative process and effort that are necessary components for growth as a director. Perhaps if the writing was cleaned up, the story would have been much, much intriguing to follow, but this doesn’t deny the film from being an extraordinary visual treat for viewers old and new alike. While certainly flawed in many ways, Children Who Chase Lost Voices from Deep Below still remains a very visionary and expressive film that should appeal to those viewers outside the range of Shinkai’s previous works, even if it is hindered to some extent by its unoriginal plot.

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Author: Miguel Douglas

As an avid viewer of both Japanese animation and cinema for more than a decade now, Miguel is primarily concerned with establishing a critical look into both mediums as legitimate forms of artistic, cultural, and societal understanding. Never one to simply look at a film or series based solely on superficiality, Miguel has dedicated himself towards bringing awareness to Asian entertainment and its various facets.

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