By Andrew Hamlin
Northwest Asian Weekly
“Children Who Chase Lost Voices” marks the fourth major work from master Japanese animator Makoto Shinkai. It’s also, at just a touch under two hours, his longest-running project to date. It’s the first one to deal with fantasy, rather than science fiction.
The movie begins with the same winning simplicity that Shinkai demonstrated in his previous projects. The action follows a young girl named Asuna Watase (voiced in Japanese by Hisako Kanemoto, in English by Hilary Haag). Before and after school, she plays in the mountains around her home. She has no companions, save her tiny cat Mimi, and she spends a lot of time up on a cliff listening to radio signals through a primitive “crystal set” receiver which, we learn, her father left for her before he died.
Shinkai brings in many of his trademarks during the film’s early minutes, including his great fondness for trains and train tracks (Asuna plays along them), his love of cats (Mimi, the film’s unceasing comedy relief), and his immaculate depictions of light and color. A sensuous shot of a blooming cherry blossom tree references his earlier work from “5 Centimeters Per Second,” in which cherry blossoms played a prominent role. The lush visuals focus on the changing of the seasons and the quality of the light in different seasons and different times of day. Many times over the course of the film, crucial scenes take place in the waning hours of light, as a sun drops over its horizon and shadows lengthen.
Soon, other characters enter the action. Asuna acquires a new teacher, Ryuji Morisaki (voiced by Kazuhiko Inoue and David Matranga). A gruff but warm fellow, Mr. Morisaki soon wins over his class and Asuna. But he isn’t telling everything he knows. Like Asuna, he’s lost someone close to him, but unlike Asuna, he’s fanatical in his desire to get that person back, at any cost. His single-minded intensity makes him not altogether trustworthy.
The director sets a good deal of the film’s action in a secret underground kingdom known as Agartha. Historically, “Agartha” is a legendary lost city situated in the Earth’s core. Shinkai keeps this basic idea, but expands the notion of “city” into an entire kingdom, where magical beings, some benevolent, others malevolent, thrive.
The idea of a “hollow earth,” or a world inside a world, is also an old one, popularized in fiction by Jules Verne’s “Journey to the Center of the Earth” from 1864. Shinkai arranges and adapts from several different theories and mythologies to suit himself, but the result is a rich story laden with exciting visuals.
Some of the story’s most entrancing visuals come from the fantasy elements. Shinkai, working with character designer Takayo Nishimura and art director Takumi Tanji, creates fantastic apparitions that look, move, and behave quite unlike anything seen on Earth’s surface. Some assist the human characters, some are out for destruction, and others remain enigmatic.
“Children Who Chase Lost Voices” reaffirms Shinkai’s position as one of the most exciting anime directors working, and adds some exhilarating new elements to his artistry.
Shinkai is putting the finishing touches on his new film, to be entitled “Garden of Words” in English. Judging by its trailer, it will reaffirm his love of cityscapes, shown in his earlier work. But “Children Who Chase Lost Voices” begins in wilderness and progresses to wilder wilderness. Shinkai seems primed for voyages of jaw-dropping surprise and beauty, no matter what his starting point is. (end)
“Children Who Chase Lost Voices” is available on DVD and Blu-ray disc. Check your local video store for availability.
Andrew Hamlin can be reached at email@example.com.