Children Who Chase Lost Voices (Hoshi o Ou Kodomo) is the fifth major film by Makoto Shinkai. It’s a fantasy yarn about Asuna, a young girl living in a rural Japanese village, who visits a certain mountain to listen to signals on an unusual radio. One day she hears a haunting melody, and soon after meets a young man named Shun. This sets off a chain of events leading to Asuna’s discovery of Agartha, a world underneath the earth where the gate between the living and the dead is believed to be.
This film represents the most significant evolution of Shinkai’s storytelling. While Shinkai’s films are very evocative of his favorite themes – loneliness, separation, and loss – he often leaves out their purpose from a storytelling perspective. I got a sense that Children Who Chase Lost Voices was a more concerted effort to examine the nature of such themes, to see how those feelings arise and how people live with them. If you look at Shinkai’s work as one story arc, you can get a sense of why Children Who Chase Lost Voices is such a big leap. Voices of a Distant Star is the thematic origin, which his subsequent works revisit. The Place Promised in Our Early Days and 5 Centimeters Per Second tend to dwell on loneliness and sorrow. Then we get to this film, which is all about moving on.
Really, mortality is at the heart of everything. The different perspectives on it are borne out by the three main characters. Mr. Morisaki, Asuna’s teacher, is obsessed with the idea of resurrecting his dead wife. The people of Agartha openly embrace mortality, while Asuna is somewhere in between. As the story progresses we learn that maybe Asuna shares some of Morisaki’s desperation. It really lends some depth to her character, which I never saw as fitting into a particular archetype. She has certain moe qualities but isn’t used in the way a typical moe girl would be. Asuna is instantly reminiscent of a classic Miyazaki heroine, but tends to be less invincible than those characters. One particular scene toward the end, showing Asuna slogging through a shallow river, really got to me in showing her vulnerability. I think it makes her a strong lead. You share in her discoveries in a way, and want her to succeed – doubly so if you’re the kind of person who can easily relate to Makoto Shinkai’s work.
Beyond learning to complete a story, this movie shows that Shinkai has learned how to create a world. He’s always been pretty good at it, but here he builds up the setting piece by piece at just the right times. It’s a creative world, too, showing a decidedly unique take on the land of the dead. While my rational mind groans at the hollow-earth aspect of it, I found Agartha to be a fascinating and memorable setting nonetheless.
Children Who Chase Lost Voices is also Shinkai’s most Ghibli-esque film. The aesthetic certainly harkens back to Miyazaki: the lush landscapes, bizarre creature designs, and even the slightly pudgy faces of the characters. Shinkai’s signature is his amazing art direction, and it’s as good here as it’s ever been. 5 Centimeters Per Second remains my favorite visual experience in an anime, but this is right up there. Tenmon’s score is excellent as usual. This film matches Ghibli’s productions in scale and ambition, though there is a difference in the storytelling. Of the Ghibli films I’ve seen, all of them are designed to work for children. While Children Who Chase Lost Voices is whimsical and has plenty of levity, I feel like this film only works if you’re an adult. It works if you understand the significance of Asuna’s journey and the profundity of Morisaki’s loss.
Ever since I saw his first OVA, Makoto Shinkai has been a director who could always affect me. There are other directors I follow and deeply appreciate, such as Satoshi Kon and Mamoru Hosoda. But Shinkai is the one who seems to specifically tailor his work to me, as if he had a wire directly into my mind and draws on everything he finds there. Obviously I have no actual connection to him, but I’ve always found that aspect of his work remarkable. Shinkai is someone who always tells stories I care about, and Children Who Chase Lost Voices is his finest story.