There are people who believe the dead can be brought back to life and some even believe you can travel to an underground, hidden world to make that happen. Here in Part VII of the Makoto Shinkai Series, we’ll be taking a look at a movie that has all of that and then some. This is Hoshi wo Ou Kodomo, or Children Who Chase Lost Voices!
Makoto Shinkai’s works are known to bring a tear to your eye with tales of tragic love but this one doesn’t seem to generate emotions quite as much as his other works. The story starts out as a simple slice of life scenario. Asuna Watase loves going into the mountains and using a crystal radio to tune in music. One day she hears a song that seems otherworldly and piques her interest. At night, from her bedroom window, she gazes up at her listening spot and sees a faint light flash. Asuna returns there the next day; along the way she finds a boy named Shun, who suddenly appears to save Asuna from a weird creature.
Shun claims that he came here to visit someone specifically and that someone is Asuna. Then, mysteriously, after Shun gives Asuna a kiss on the forehead and sends her on her way he passes out and dies after falling off the mountain. News of his death reaches Asuna who refuses to believe it. Little did Asuna know her world was about to be turned upside down when she revisits the mountain and finds Shun alive and well, or so she thinks. A military group shows up and this Shun doppelganger leads her underground where his Clavis (crystal key) opens the doorway to the hidden world of Agartha. One of the militants goes through the portal as does Asuna and the Shun double.
The militant unmasks himself as Ryuuji Morisaki, Asuna’s substitute teacher, who is a huge mythology buff and seems to know intricate details about Agartha. There is a rumor that there is a portal to the realm of life and death in Agartha where you bring the dead back to life. Ryuuji is seeking this gate and Asuna decides to join him on his journey.
Makoto Shinkai decides to take us on a journey of science fiction mixed with mythology here. The story is very straightforward with no twists or convolutions. Shinkai keeps it simple and within this sci-fi setting, he passes along a deep message that you should always cherish the memory of the dead so that they can live on forever within you. The message also conveys that it’s okay to feel grief and sorrow when a loved one passes, but it is necessary to accept the fact that death is simply a part of life and it will only destroy you if you dwell on it too much. In fact, Ryuuji’s wife said it best to him when she was terminally ill, “everyone will eventually pass on sooner or later and there’s nothing we can do to change that. It just so happens I will pass on before you”
Unlike a lot of the Makoto Shinkai works I’ve reviewed thus far, this one is a full-length feature film – clocking in just a few minutes shy of two hours. Since the movie had time to develop characters, there are quite a few of them, so let’s take a look.
She’s a typical student whose mother works long shifts at the local hospital so she lives on her own most of the time. She’s self-dependent and is also the class representative. She maintains high marks but doesn’t seem to have many friends except for a cat name Mimi. She often goes up to the mountain to listen to a radio powered by a crystal.
I wish I could say more about Asuna’s character, but that’s about it. Her personality doesn’t really change all that much.. even after she meets Shun and falls in love with him. She goes through that typical teen girl reaction when Shun kisses her, but after that, she just seems to be pretty mild-mannered, even when going into Agartha. As a character.. especially a main character that’s the focal point of the movie, she feels very flat and generic. Her self-dependence comes through when she forages for food when they arrive there and also when she kind of becomes a guardian for Manna, a lost girl that they come across, but she doesn’t really do anything to really stand out. It just feels like she’s there for the sake of being there.
Ryuuji is a former member of the Japanese military who loses his wife to a terminal illness. He’s a mythology buff who knows a lot of details about the hidden world of Agartha. He tracks the whereabouts of the entrance to the town Asuna lives in so he takes up a job as a substitute teacher. He ends up teaching Asuna’s class when her teacher goes on maternity leave. Ryuuji, being a former military officer and a current member of the Arch Angels (a military-style group dedicated to believing in and finding Agartha), has a pretty straight-forward and gruff personality. He also comes across as persistent because of his obsession with finding Agartha so he can, one day, be reunited with his wife.
This was kind of a weird character. He gives off the vibe that others tagging along on his journey would only hinder him, but at the same time, he thinks of them as tools. Like when Asuna’s cat, Mimi, comes along on the journey and ends up getting them past the Quetz Coatl (Gate Keeper) and into Agartha, he feels Mimi could be of some better use than he once thought. Despite this mentality, he also seems caring and gentle and almost like a father figure. In fact, Asuna even says he is kind of like a father to her in this situation. He’s persistent, but not to the point of insanity, but he is obsessed nevertheless. It’s really weird to place what kind of character he is because he has such a mixed bag to deal with.
Shin Canaan Praeses
Meet the doppelganger! Shin is Shun’s younger brother, who came “topside” from the underground world of Agartha, to retrieve Shun’s Clavis after news of his death reached his village. He is the one who inadvertently gets Asuna mixed up in this entire ordeal after Asuna mistakes him for Shun. If there ever was a great example of a male tsundere character, Shin is it. On the surface, he’s cold and uncaring, but as the movie progresses, he slowly reveals the emotions in his heart and begins to fall for Asuna to the point where he’ll do just about anything to protect her.
This is Shun, by the way
Shin was my favorite character mainly because he went through the most character development in the entire film. We find out he was orphaned and taken in by his village so he owes them a great debt for raising him and his brother. The village is very harsh on him for allowing “topsiders” into their world and they order him to retrieve their Clavis and eliminate them if necessary, but Shin ends up going through his transformation on this mission and can’t bring himself to do it. He wants to protect Asuna and it causes him to become an outcast. The fact that he threw away all of that just to be with Asuna in the end is a pretty good testament to the kind of person Shin is. He’s strong, self-dependent, and gives off that big brother protector-type character. It was a job well-done with him!
Yes, the cat is getting a mention here because it probably one of the most subtle; yet, tragic characters in the entire movie. On the outside, Mimi seems like your every day stray cat. She comes around and keeps Asuna company and even sticks with her when she journeys to Agartha. At first, it looks like a simple companionship, but there is something amiss when Mimi ends up getting a Quetz Coatl to allow them entry into Agartha. According to a village elder, Mimi is not a cat, but a being from Agartha known as a Yadoriko. Its purpose is to guide and watch over people.
When Asuna and Ryuuji save Manna and return her to her village, Mimi ends up staying behind, refusing to go with Asuna. At first, it looks like Mimi has chosen to stay with Manna and protect her, which breaks Asuna’s heart because the two were bonded so closely, but it is revealed that Mimi’s job as protector and guide has come to an end and thus, Mimi was preparing herself for death. Shortly after Asuna leaves the village, Mimi passes away in her sleep.
If you’ve ever owned a pet, chances are you’ve experienced a loss and you know that it can be heartbreaking. Although it wasn’t a tear-jerker moment, it was still a bit sad to see Mimi’s passing. Mimi stuck with Asuna through everything up until the time came when it realized that she had fulfilled her purpose and there was nothing left to do except pass on.
These were some really odd people. They have been described as cursed people, but what they have become doesn’t seem human at all. They have the ability to seep into the ground, have large red, glowing eyes, and look more like a humanoid creature more than anything. They prey on humans that they deem as “defiled.” They do have a gimmick, though. They can only move in the shadows. They cannot tolerate sunlight nor water so bright spots and rivers can keep you safe from them. Throughout the movie, they serve as the antagonists, although, they seem more like a nuisance or an excuse to add a hint of danger to the story.
Those are pretty much the only major characters. The only one I didn’t touch upon was Manna simply because she seemed like a plot device more than a character. She can’t speak due to being traumatized by the death of her mother. She wandered off and got lost and was brought back to her village by Ryuuji and Asuna. After they leave the village, Manna just becomes an afterthought. It seemed her only purpose was to get them to the village for an information dump and then that was it.
Art & Animation
As with most of Makoto Shinkai’s works, this looks absolutely gorgeous. All of the backgrounds have that signature style that CoMix Wave is known for. It looks like a painting come to life. Everything from textures, to backgrounds, to the characters themselves were well-designed and really helped immerse you in the world.
The world of Agartha, however, didn’t seem all that unique. It resembled more like the great plains more than an entirely different world. I don’t know if it was by design, but I couldn’t help but remind myself of Voices of a Distant Star as they depicted the second Earth the same way… as a grassy plain. Maybe that’s all alien worlds are.. are just grassy plains? Who am I to judge.. I’ve never been to one!
The animation was very fluid. You could definitely tell there were a lot of animation frames used for individual character movement and it definitely gave off the feeling of this having a big movie budget to work with. Nothing seemed out of place and even the CG fit in perfectly. It was very well-done!
The character designs weren’t as generic as some of his other works. Asuna got a makeover about half way through the movie which gave her a nice standout look. They even had Shin cut his hair to distinguish him from Shun and fit that style change into the story seamlessly. Mimi looked very unique for a cat and I really loved her design and the Quetz Coatl were all uniquely designed to where no two were alike. Every character was recognizable and even with their transformations, you never had to second guess who you were looking at.
This was definitely a good movie, but it wasn’t great or exceptional. The straight-forward story did its job and the characters seemed diverse enough to set them apart from each other. I really wished Asuna had more personality, but I guess it can’t be helped.
The world of Agartha did have one glaring flaw that I kept trying to figure out. When they first arrive, Ryuuji makes note that the water there is known as Vita-Aqua.. or Life Water. Vita-Aqua is a special water that fills your lungs with air so you can breathe in it. This lead me to belief that all water on Agartha was like this, but there were several scenes where they encountered water and had to resurface to gasp for air… that is until the end of the movie when they approach the Life and Death Gate and they make mention that there is Vita-Aqua present. So is there just Vita-Aqua in certain places or was this a continuity error? The film never flat out states this and it’s just assumed that it’s in different areas and not everywhere… still.. it felt a little mind-boggling.
Another thing that kind of bothered me was the ending. Shin and Asuna kind of just walk off into the sunset and they never explain if Asuna ever goes back up to the “topside” world. They don’t even show her mother’s reaction to her daughter who has been gone missing for several days now. No town search party, nothing. Hell, after they escape into Agartha, the Arch Angels disappear for the remainder of the movie! I guess they just shrugged and went home or out to dinner or something. Who knows? I think they could have bounced back and forth between both worlds to give a bit more depth, but instead, they decided to focus on just Agartha and pretty much say screw it to the rest of the world.
What I mentioned before about this not really being a tear-jerker has to do with the setting. Perhaps its because it’s a twisted Alice in Wonderland-type story and because as such, you’re trying to take in the new world and learn its properties, but it just doesn’t seem tragic. When the cat dies and it’s the saddest point in the movie, you know that the sorrow factor is at an all-time low. I get that not EVERYTHING produced by Shinkai has to be sad and there are many subtle degrees, but it just seemed like a departure from what he normally produces.
Don’t read into that wrong, though. I still think this movie is worth your time and I doubt that you’ll regret spending the two hours on it.. I just don’t think it’ll tug at your heartstrings like his other works do.
We have one part left, guys! The final part of the Makoto Shinkai Series will take a look at The Place Promised in Our Early Days!
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Children Who Chase Lost Voices
A movie that sends a message about accepting life and death