aka Journey to Agartha
A visually stunning meditation on death, love, and loneliness, this story of a girl’s journey to a mystical underworld doesn’t shy away from the harsh things encountered in life. Filled with action, magical creatures, a hint of romance, and a profound sense of loss, the movie is one of the best anime efforts to ever come out of Japan.
Director/writer Makoto Shinkai has made a name for himself over the past decade by creating beautifully animated tales of love lost. Some have labeled him the next Hayao Miyazaki though he hasn’t had the international success of that renowned director. In an effort to reach a wider audience, Shinkai began to ponder universal beliefs across cultures and what would appeal to the entire world. The end result is a dazzling and thoughtful movie about dealing with the deaths of loved ones.
Set in a rural town in 1970’s Japan, Children Who Chase Lost Voices makes quite an impression right away. Not through a cheap trick of a shocking or surprising event, but through showing the quiet beauty of a girl listening to a railroad track. The play of light and shadows combines with the sounds of the countryside to create an authentic sun kissed moment that immerses the viewer into the setting.
The girl’s name is Asuna and she’s in a hurry to get somewhere. As we follow her running around, we are treated to superb animation on the way to her secret place hidden up on a hill. The sheer amount of eye candy borders on overload and repeat viewings had me finding something new every time.
On the hilltop, she pulls out a crystal radio set and tunes in an unearthly song. Alone but apparently content which she listens with Mimi, a strangely marked kitten, at her side. A nostalgic atmosphere of a lost era is saturates the peaceful scene compounded by the overgrown wrecked WWII era artillery piece on the hill.
Then a year passes in a lovely montage. Skipping around in time is a hallmark of Shinkai’s works, so this is no surprise. You’ll also find an amazing attention to detail in every scene.
Not all feels beautiful and right, though. Asuna is a latch key kid from a time before that label even existed and she seems to be keeping other students at arm’s length despite being at the top of her class. Then there are the facts that her father is dead, her mother works the night shift at a hospital, and the twelve year old is left to do all the cooking and cleaning herself. Aside from having a secret hideout, the twelve year old doesn’t seem to be living the life of a kid.
So it is understandable that a certain kind of restlessness shows in her behavior. The song she heard the last year still haunts her and when she spies a flashing blue light at her spot on the hill she decided to check it out the next day.
This all leads her to an encounter with an older boy, which in itself isn’t unusual. Looking very Seventies, he rescues her from a very strange creature on the railroad bridge. It’s a sudden departure from the normalness presented up to this point and a spectacular one involving a magic crystal. Now that’s unusual.
With the sudden shift into fantastic events the movie feels more like a Studio Ghibli production, though closer to Princess Mononoke in feel than one of the tamer outings. Blood and gore shatter the established halcyon atmosphere in a violent event that will change Asuna’s life forever.
First crushes are usually very intense and the heroic Shun completely flusters the adolescent girl. He’s mysterious, dashing, sensitive, and everything a girl could find captivating. Add in that he’s from a far off land called Agartha and it makes him a nearly perfect romance novel character. Coloring the encounters between the two is a feeling of something being wrong, which makes the blessing he gives wishing for her to live ominous
Their brief time together comes to a tragic end and because it’s vital to the story, I’ll spoil what happens. Shun reaches out to the stars and falls to his death like a star plummeting from the sky. He knew his time was short and his sadly facing death is a sobering moment in what had appeared to be a romantic action story.
Upon finding out about his death, Asuna goes into instant denial. This isn’t her first time dealing with the passing of someone she cared about, but as a flashback shows, she was too young to understand what was going on when her father died. Bit by bit, we are shown why the girl is a loner.
Her travails are only beginning, however.
Entering the picture is another mysterious older guy, but this one isn’t a romantic prospect. A substitute teacher, Mr. Morisaki is much more than he appears to be. For one thing, he knows about Agartha and mentions it when teaching about the commonality of myths about men going to the underworld to try to bring back deceased wives. From the story of Orpheus in Ancient Greece to Izanagi in Japan, each tale ends in tragedy.
Determined to find out more about Agartha, Asuna approaches a brooding Morisaki. Rumors are flying around school about his wife being dead and the two quickly show signs of being kindred spirits. While guarded, he reveals that legends around the world indicate that the dead really can be resurrected. There’s a great deal more to the man including an air of dangerousness about him.
Sure enough, Asuna soon finds her life threatened by a secret organization looking for Agartha. A chance encounter with a boy looking for the crystal carried by Shun shakes her up even more. The fact that he looks and sounds like her dead crush leads to some confusion as she’s sure he’s Shun, which he doesn’t take well at all.
Events snowball from their meeting eventually resulting in Morisaki and Asuna finding their way to Agartha. Thanks to Mimi hitching a ride in her bag, they are able to enter the fabled underworld. Oddly, the kitten has not grown in size during the intervening year since we were introduced to it.
Agartha is a gorgeous patoral world filled with long overgrown ruins an always cloudy sky. It’s a spectacular scene when they emerge to see the lost land and then see a strange and ornate ark flying through the sky. It is the Shakuna Vimana that God is said to ride, according to Morisaki.
Their odyssey beginning the two wander in search of the secret to bringing the dead back to life. Agartha, despite its natural beauty, is a place devoid of humans. Traces of their past presence are found in crumbling foundations and a library filled with damaged tomes. It’s a lonely journey that gives the two seekers a chance to bond in a way that neither have experienced before.
In truth, they are not alone in Agartha. Shin, Shun’s younger brother, is in a world of trouble for sticking to only his mission thereby allowing intruders into the land. A glimpse of a decaying and inflexible society is shown, one that has been damaged by past contact with the outside world. Determined to atone for his failure, Shin is set on a collision course with Asuna and Morisaki.
Lest you think the entire movie is grim, there are lighter and sweeter moments spread throughout. Mimi gets some of the best, being a precocious cat who seems to understand more than it should. Warm moments between Asuna and Morisaki unexpectedly occur and all the more welcome for it. Simply put, there is beauty to be found in the movie beyond the incredible imagery on display.
Dreams play a big role in the story, often used to show the emotional status and history of the characters. There is a nightmarish quality to them, with events of the past featuring line hatching for character shadows in what had to be a deliberate artistic choice. Those lines also show up when a rather nasty race of insect-like beings show up during the best depiction of sleep paralysis I’ve seen in fiction.
The incredibly creepy Izoku live in shadows and hunt down the “defiled” or impure to purge them from Agartha. Their arrival in the story dramatically ratchets up the stakes while introducing a new character, Mana. An endearing mute girl, she latches on to Asuna subsequently bringing out the best in the older girl.
Their desperate escape from a ruined city is a top notch action piece that rivals anything Miyazaki has done. Dazzling shifts in camera angles mix with the play of light and shadows during the intense chase to create a true spectacle worthy of a Hollywood blockbuster. It’s a tour de force that generates tension, fear, and dread in equal measure. Nothing feels safe and I remember wondering if some of the characters would die the first time I viewed the film.
One of the central themes of Children Who Chase Lost Voices is that consequences follow every action with an encounter with the human remnants in Agartha hammering that home. Xenophobia, paranoia, and hopelessness are the chief characteristics of the locals, but an elder breaks the rules briefly to provide shelter and much needed explanations to the intruders.
The entire history of the surface world has been one of covert invasions looking for riches and power in Agartha. Generations of pillaging and slaughter has left the human population to a dwindle in hopelessness, so their hatred of topsiders is deep. Mixing with them is forbidden, though some have broken that rule with tragic outcomes.
With no hope of help from the humans in Agartha, Morisaki and Asuna set off on a lonely voyage to fulfill their quest. How far will they go to reclaim their lost loved ones? And more importantly, what price will they pay for their actions?
Only tragedy can await.
My first thought after first watching Children Who Chase Lost Voices was, “This is an absolutely brilliant movie.” My second thought was, “I must own this.”
Crunchyroll had a Makoto Shinkai weekend early in 2013 showcasing all of his works in a limited run. I watched this one first and immediately purchased the Blu-ray being offered in their online store. I also watched it a second time later that night. By the way, the weekend was so successful in getting viewers that they got the rights to stream his older works all year long.
Imagine if Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata (Grave of the Fireflies, Only Yesterday) combined to make a movie. Okay, not really possible given Miyazaki’s habit of belittling everyone else’s work, but if it were possible you would get something like this movie. Shinkai combines the artistic eye of Miyazaki with the emotional sensitivity of Takahata while having a tremendous sense of combined impact superior to either of his elders.
High praise, I know. Yet that’s the opinion I have after watching his works. There has only been one I haven’t liked, 5 Centimeters Per Second, which ironically is his most praised work. All his other works have been tremendously fascinating at worst and deeply moving at best. He captures beautiful moments better than any animation director alive or dead.
One of the joys of watching a Shinkai film is his brilliant senses of shadows and light. His use of light is more like that of a live action director and I’d compare it favorably to Guillermo del Toro’s. Then there is the amazing world design that always has a big screen scope. Never is a background boring or uninteresting.
At nearly two hours long, Children Who Chase Lost Voices is the longest movie the director has made. Fortunately, the story is substantial enough that it needs all of that running time to tell the epic journey made by Asuna and Morisaki. The slower scenes add much to the atmosphere, for the story is all about melancholic contemplation.
That leads me to something I should discuss which is the one of the reasons why the movie was made. There is a genre of anime that loosely translates to “healing” and the intent of the movie is just that. It was specifically aimed at those who are having a hard time with loneliness or personal loss. That may sound pretentious, but it is meant sincerely and I’d say it succeeded in that respect.
The theme of dealing with grief necessarily dominates the film. Trying to resurrect the dead is the main motivator for the leads – though another motivation does get revealed in the third act. While not remotely as emotionally bruising as Grave of the Fireflies, there is emotional heft to the ending and many of the events leading to it. Shinkai doesn’t shy away from the kill (metaphorically speaking), the way Miyazaki always does in making nearly perfect happy endings.
Asuna and Morisaki are plausible characters, so much so that you could easily believe they weren’t cartoons. The brothers from Agartha, Shun and Shin, are also realistic in their emotional depictions as are any of the characters we get to see for a significant amount of time. It felt like being dropped into the middle of a living, breathing world filled with real people.
A warning to parents is necessary. This isn’t a film for small children and is rightly rated TV-PG. There are brief moments of blood and gore, plus very intense scenes of terrifying creatures. I may sound like a broken record in my reviews, but again this is something only suitable for double digits and up. One of the best aspects of the story and characters is that there is something for every age to like.
I highly recommend this movie to people who love mythology, epic tales, and emotional movies. Action lovers will find much to like too. Most of all, this is a good movie for anyone dealing with the loss of a loved one needing catharsis.
Also, sit through the credits, the movie isn’t over when they start rolling. More sensitive souls may want a box of tissues handy.
Sentai Filmworks put the Blu-ray out under their CoMix Wave Films label in 2012 and this is the edition I’m reviewing. While the packaging isn’t fancy by any means, it is nicely done with fully printed color artwork on the disc itself.
The HD transfer is superb. Presented in 1080p 16:9 ratio, the colors are vibrant and the contrast tack sharp. If you want to show off your HDTV, this disc will demonstrate why high definition benefits animation so greatly.
Audio is no slouch, either. Both the Japanese and English 5.1 tracks are in DTS-HD Master Audio with a second Japanese track for the commentary in the stereo version of the format. English subtitles are available for all tracks.
Something to note is that Sentai’s English dub omits some things and even has a couple examples of incomplete sentences where it appears they cut dialogue short to match the mouth movement. All in all, it isn’t an impressive dub and nowhere near the quality of the Japanese original.
A good part of that is due to the exceptional performances of the original voice actors. Watch the extras and you’ll see how those performances were elicited out of the cast. I think I’m slightly afraid of the Japanese voice director after watching him work.
The Blu-ray comes with a bevy of extras, all in HD with English subtitles:
Interview with the Staff & Cast – Approaching an hour in length, the voice actors of Asuna (Hisako Kanemoto), Shun/Shin (Miyu Irino), and Morisaki (Kazuhiko Inoue) give their insights into the characters and working with Shinkai. The director himself gets a fair amount of time as well.
What makes this fun is hearing how the film touched each actor in different ways. Also interesting is how carefully they were cast, for the director had a clear idea of what he wanted. In Kanemoto’s case, he wanted a highly talented up and comer who had experience (she was the starring voice of the breakout comedy Squid Girl) but wasn’t an old hand yet. That way her acting could be more natural and wouldn’t use an anime voice. On the other extreme, Inoue was the voice Shinkai heard in his head as he wrote Morisake.
A Brief Interview with Makoto Shinkai – Only a slideshow of a written interview, it does reveal he was inspired by The Kojiki and Dante’s Inferno.
The Making of Children Who Chase Lost Voices – This 45 minute long documentary is the best of the special features. Everything about the production is covered, from its genesis during a trip to Middle East Arab countries and England to the premiere. The film came from a desire to make something that wasn’t Japanese culturally centric and would be more mainstream. If you noticed the characters look very Studio Ghibli like, that was intentional since that is what is most people outside of Japan think anime should look like.
Quite a bit of research went into making the movie, including location scouting for the lovely rural town Asuna lives in. Recording the soundtrack, a good but not exceptional composition by Tenmon, near the end of the project inadvertently shows just how draining making an anime film is.
The Works of Makoto Shinkai – Introductions and trailers of his other works are shown here. One frustrating part is that the English subtitles of the intros are overlaid directly atop the Japanese text making them difficult to read.
Japanese Promotional Video – Talk about spoilers! The video for the end song, Hello Goodbye and Hello gives away the entire movie. Anri Kumaki’s lovely and bittersweet song is subtitled, which is a very nice bonus.
Japanese Teasers – The original ads complete with subtitles. Not terribly interesting, but it does demonstrate just how complete the extras are.
BEWARE! HERE BE SPOILERS!!!
The death of Mimi was throat tightening for me since it reminded me of the death of one my cats. There’s nothing quite like finding a loved animal curled in a lifeless ball, so I watching the distraught Mana weep uncontrollably over the cat was hard.
Eastern beliefs in becoming one with greater existence are displayed with the devouring of semi-divine Mimi by the humanoid Quetzal Coatl. Of interest was the missing arm like the Shun of Asuna’s nightmare earlier.
Shin’s rebellion against the resignation and abandonment of the will to live by the residents of Agartha is a pointed counter to acceptance. Since all choices in the movie have consequences, it makes him an outcast from Agartha and going topside isn’t an option since the polluted air will kill him like his brother. He’s the true hero of the story or at least the most heroic as his actions to protect Asuna show.
He might be a little interested in the topside girl by this point, but I can’t help think about that tearful local girl back at the temple he was raised at. She strikes me as the type to follow him if given the chance.
All the rivers lead to a circular chasm that is deep enough to have clouds. It’s an impressive obstacle for the duo and Asuna’s inability to climb down leads to an unusual tradeoff. Like Shun, Morisaki wishes for her to live, but he’s not going to stop so close to the end goal.
Their paths diverge, but both go through grueling trials on hard roads. Asuna’s run from the Izoku is alternately beautiful and harrowing capturing the essence of nightmare again. In the end, she can’t save herself despite having a gun. That’s far more realistic than most movies featuring heroines, live action or animated.
Though Morisaki and Asuna are parted, they both end up in the same place. The critical difference is one intrudes and the other is invited. With the Quetzal Coatl singing its death song that permeates and changes the world, Asuna recognizes what she heard a year before on the crystal set: Shun’s death song. She can understand it when it offers to take her and Shin to the Gate of Life and Death, one of many hints of her true ancestry.
The god of Agartha is a multi-eyed monstrosity, cold and inhuman. CG is used here and for the most part it blends in with the traditional cel art. It being a bit off actually accentuates the impression of an alien being.
You have to hand it to Morisaki, he’s consistent. Faced with having to provide a host for his dead wife’s soul, he doesn’t hesitate when Asuna appears. Instead of a warm scene of him doing the right thing after coming to care for the girl like the daughter he never had, he sacrifices her.
As foreshadowed, a tragic price is exacted for bringing his beloved Lisa back. Her confusion as she senses Asuna’s memories adds to the pain and guilt, but he won’t let go.
Seeing Asuna with Shun and Mimi in what appears to be the afterlife was unexpected and poignant. Especially the goodbye that she hadn’t been able to say to him before.
The broken music box symbolizes Morisaki being freed at last from the past, albeit involuntarily.
The end credits are powerful, thanks to the song and the depiction of the trio traveling. Morisaki was blind in an emotional sense and now he is physically. Now he has to find a way to live due to Lisa’s last request. What a great character he is along with being the perfect example of someone so trapped in grief that they couldn’t move on.
Time to graduate from elementary school to junior high for our heroine. Asuna looks radiant and no longer the lonely girl we first met. She’s moved on in life, which is what everyone who loses loved ones needs to do.
I find it intriguing that Asuna is implied to be a child of both worlds and that her late father came from Agartha. Perhaps she is symbolic of that both worlds can come together. At least it is interesting to me that she shares the same heritage as little Mana.
While there is no plan for a sequel, Shinkai left a nice bit of hope in the form of the clavis shard of her father’s being given back to her by Shin, allowing her to return there in the future. It leaves us free to imagine an even happier ending than we got.