Children Who Chase Lost Voices

Tagged: Film

Japanese animated film (2011; vt Journey to Agartha). Original title Hoshi o Ou Kodomo. CoMix Wave Films. Directed and written by Makoto Shinkai. Voice cast includes Kazuhiko Inoue, Miyu Irino and Hisako Kanemoto. 116 minutes. Colour.

Young Asuna Watase (Kanemoto), raised by her widowed and busy mother, often goes to the nearby mountains to listen to the sounds on her crystal radio. She's rescued from a Monster by Shun (Irino), who says the creature is a gatekeeper of his land, Agartha. Later his dead body is found. Shortly after Ryūji Morisaki (Inoue), a substitute teacher at Asuna's school, lectures on Underground lands in Mythology, mentioning Agartha. Asuna, returning to the mountain, meets Shun's younger brother Shin; he recognizes her radio's crystal, then a military force arrives. The pair flee to Agartha's gateway: the military's leader ensures only Shin, Asuna and himself pass through, then closes the entrance. The leader is Ryūji, who wishes to resurrect his dead wife, Lisa.

They are in a Hollow Earth. Initially it looks similar to the surface, though with huge ancient ruins (see Ruins and Futurity), no stars, and fictional settlements including Amaurot from Sir Thomas More's Utopia (1516). Further differences become apparent: breathable water; "The flying ark in which God rides" passing over; Quetzalcoatls, eaters of the dead (animated very differently to their traditional appearance) and the Isozo, predatory six-limbed humanoids that are "part of the structure that maintains this world". There are also the gatekeepers, prehistoric animals that are diminished gods who once guided infant humanity: one is a Pakicetus, the land-dwelling ancestor of whales (again, dramatic licence has been taken). For centuries surfaces empires raided Agartha for its wealth and knowledge, including Hitler and Stalin (see Alternate History), so now only a relict population remains.

After some adventures Asuna and Ryūji arrive at a vast circular chasm. Ryūji takes Asuna's crystal and descends, reaching the "Gates of Life and Death", the entrance to a starlit world. Summoned by the crystal, the flying ark appears, transforming into a many-eyed god. Asuna and Shin – who had been sidelined by the Isozo – now arrive, carried in the belly of a Quetzalcoatl. The god, needing a vessel, houses Lisa's soul in Asuna (a form of Identity Transfer: we now see Asuna in the afterlife with Shun – see Eschatology) but Shin smashes the crystal so the possession fails. The Ark departs; Shin and a chastened Ryūji take Asuna back to the surface, but both stay underground.

Children Who Chase Lost Voices is a beautiful-looking film with a reasonable plot, though the worldbuilding does not quite hold together; still there is much of interest. The film's focus wavers: Asuna is the viewpoint character, but is largely passive: it is Ryūji who drives the plot and learns lessons about handling grief. Asuna belatedly explains she came to Agartha "because I was so lonely", but there has been little sense of this sadness driving her character. The resemblance to Hayao Miyazaki's work – particularly Tenkū no shiro Laputa (1986; vt Castle in the Sky), Shinkai's favourite anime – suggests a tribute; if so, it certainly succeeds visually, if less so with character. [SP]

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