“Death is not the opposite of life, but a part of it.” –Haruki Murakami
Ever since her father passed away, Asuna Watase spends her free time looking after the house while her mother works, and listening to music emanating from a mysterious radio that once belonged to her father with her cat, Mimi. One day, she encounters a boy named Shun after running into a Quetzalcoatl, a beast from the ancient world. After tending to Shun’s wounds, Asuna befriends him, but he falls to his death from the cliff ledge. The next day, Asuna is surprised that their new substitute instructor, Ryūji Morisaki, gives a lesson on the legend of Agartha, a world inhabited by the dead, and ends up speaking to him to learn more. Upon returning to her secret spot, Asuna is surprised to find another boy, Shin, there. It turns out he’s here to recover the Clavis fragment Shun had dropped, but the pair are cornered by Archangel, a paramilitary group searching for Agartha. Shin and Asuna manage to escape underground, with Archangel in pursuit. It turns out that Ryūji is leading the operation, and after a confrontation, Ryūji secures Asuna’s Clavis, giving him access to Agartha: Ryūji had been longing to resurrect his deceased wife. Upon arriving in Agartha, Ryūji and Asuna set off for the Gate of Life and Death, while Shin returns to the village and learns that his assignment had been unsuccessful, since Asuna possessed a Clavis fragment of her own. When Asuna is captured by the Izoku, monsters that fear the light, she encounters a little girl named Manna. Shin rescues them, but after Ryūji locates the two, Asuna persuades Ryūji to allow Shin to accompany them. In the village, the elder reluctantly allows Asuna and Ryūji to stay the night as repayment for having saved Manna, but warns that outsiders have always been an ill-omen in Agartha. The next morning, Asuna and Ryūji continue with their journey, while Mimi stays behind and passes away peacefully. After Manna offers Mimi’s corpse to a Quetzalcoatl, Shin notices the village’s soldiers riding out to intercept Asuna and Ryūji. He sets off after them with the aim of saving Asuna, but is promptly defeated in combat. The commander notes he’s betrayed Agartha and leave him to die, while Asuna and Ryūji arrive at the Gate of Life and Death. Unable to carry on, Asuna sets off and makes her way back to the surface, leaving Ryūji to climb to the bottom of the pit alone. As night falls, Asuna is tailed by a horde of Izoku, and laments having accepted this journey because she’d been feeling abandoned. Before the Izoku can kill her, Shin arrives and save her. They grieve Shun’s loss together and return to the Gate of Life at Death. Here, they encounter the Quetzalcoatl who’d accepted Mimi’s corpse, and learn it too is dying. Before it dies, it sings a song and offers to carry the pair down to the Gate of Life and Death. Upon crossing the barrier, they find Ryūji preparing to make his wish of bringing his wife back. However, the cost of resurrecting those from the dead is immense, and Ryūji loses his right eye, while Asuna is sacrificed to act as a vessel for his wife’s soul. Shin manages to destroy the Clavis and stop the process, saving Asuna but leaving Ryūji inconsolable. However, Shin notes that all living things come to an end and implores Ryūji to continue living for his wife’s sake. The pair accompany Asuna back to the portal leading to the surface and bid her farewell: Ryūji’s decided to remain behind in Agartha. Later, Asuna glances at the cliff where she first met Shin and Shun, before heading off to school with a smile on her face. This is Children Who Chase Lost Voices From Deep Below (Hoshi wo Ou Kodomo, literally “Children Who Chase Stars”, and from here on out, Children Who Chase Lost Voices for brevity), Makoto Shinkai’s 2011 film that remains his longest work and treads on territory that is is explored nowhere else amongst his repertoire.
At its core, Children Who Chase Lost Voices represents a bold new direction for Makoto Shinkai: although distance and separation still figures in the film’s central themes, as it had in his previous works, Children Who Chase Lost Voices deals predominantly in death and moving on. The film opens with Asuna, whose days are peaceful but lonely. When she encounters Shun one day, only for their time together to be cut short after Shun dies, she finds herself longing for a world where she could be together with those important to her again. That Ryūji appears as a substitute instructor shortly after is no coincidence, and more so than Asuna, Ryūji is seeking out what appears to be impossible, in locating a way to Agartha, the underworld, and its supposed means of bringing the dead back to life. This meeting sends Asuna on a journey into the fantastical realm that had hitherto been the stuff of legends, and through this adventure, Asuna comes to terms with her own desires. Meeting Shun had temporarily stemmed her feelings of loneliness, a consequence of living lengthy days without her father, who passed away when she’d been younger, and her mother, who works long days at a local clinic as a nurse, so it was natural that Asuna had desired more concrete relationships with people. Travelling through Agartha, and speaking to the underworld’s inhabitants, helps Asuna to accept that death and departure is a natural part of life, not to be lamented or feared, but accepted. Indeed, when Asuna leaves Mimi behind, she shows that she is able to let go of attachments in life. Conversely, Ryūji is unable to achieve the same, and his single-minded determination to reach Agartha and resurrect his deceased wife is a tale of tragedy. While he is knowledgeable and measured, he is also obsessed, and this obsession binds him to what should be obvious: that wishes contradicting the natural order will exact a heavy toll. He alone is able to reach the Gate of Life and Death to issue his wish, but the process leaves him disfigured and very nearly costs Asuna her life. Because Asuna is able to do what Ryūji could not, Children Who Chase Lost Voices indicates that our impressions of life and death are shaped early on, and while children may not be fully aware of the ramifications surrounding things like loss, they are also more open-minded and are more perceptive than adults believe. As such, when children ask about things like death, it is important to answer difficult questions truthfully and to the best of one’s knowledge, while at the same time, allowing children to also draw their own conclusions.
Beyond exploring a new theme in a novel setting, Children Who Chase Lost Voices also acted as a trailblazer for Shinkai; in his older works, The Place Promised in Our Early Days and Five Centimetres Per Second, the female leads were ethereal and delicate. Sayuri and Akari wound up being abstractions rather than full-fledged characters in order to facilitate Hiroki and Takaki’s growth. Conversely, Asuna has a much larger role in Children Who Chase Lost Voices compared to her predecessors; although she’s accompanying Ryūji, Asuna is shown as being very energetic and cheerful, even taking the initiative to do what she feels is right in a given moment. When they first arrive, Asuna heads off and finds sweet potatoes for herself and Ryūji. Later, she tries to rescue Manna when the Izoku begin appearing, and she is the first to accept that saying “goodbye” is a part of life, when she parts ways with Mimi. This is significant, marking a return to female characters with strength and agency. Asuna isn’t swept away by her circumstances, but instead, takes charge in making her own decisions, and for this reason, is able to find the answers she’d sought by visiting Agartha. This is in complete contrast with Sayuri, who falls into a coma and serves as Hiroki’s reason to fly up to the tower, or Akari, whose feelings for Takaki remain unanswered when she and her parents end up moving. Giving Asuna agency changes how Children Who Chase Lost Voices feels compared to its predecessors, and indeed, Shinkai would apply these lessons into the future: The Garden of Words‘ Yukari, Your Name‘s Mitsuha and Weathering With You‘s Hina each demonstrate the same autonomy and seize on a chance to change their situation, and even though circumstance steers them towards trouble, everyone winds up finding their own path anew. This creates more variety in Shinkai’s films, and indeed, having a female lead capable of making her own decisions and judgement would leave Shinkai’s works stronger than before. They’re no longer about separation and distance, but instead, depict the incredible lengths people go to make the most of things. While Children Who Chase Lost Voices might be among Shinkai’s lesser known works, especially when it stands in the shadows of The Garden of Words, Your Name and Weathering With You, this film remains highly significant and opened Shinkai up for more uplifting, optimistic stories about how people can take charge even when a situation appears to prohibit any sort of agency.
Screenshots and Commentary
- Today marks the ten year anniversary to when Children Who Chase Lost Voices released to BD: back then, I was an undergraduate student, and I remember that term particularly well. After a brutal semester the year before, I came into the new year filled with resolve. Children Who Chase Lost Voices would’ve come late in the semester, just a few weeks before exams were set to begin, and I still remember writing about it at my old site, as well as sharing a handful of screenshots showcasing the incredible landscapes in what was then Makoto Shinkai’s latest movie.
- Whereas most of Shinkai’s works are set in an urban area, Children Who Chase Lost Voices is completely rural; the movie opens with a day in Asuna Watase’s life, and although her days are quite lonely, she definitely has her game together, looking after the housework while her mother is at work. Par the course for a Shinkai movie, the visuals in this film are stunning, and ten years later, the artwork hasn’t aged a day. There’s a sense of coziness in the Watase residence as Asuna collects the laundry by evening; I’ve always had a fondness for this aesthetic, and there’s a certain romance about sleeping with an open window.
- My area only allows for this about three months of the year, although when it does get that nice, it is downright pleasant. It’s now been ten days since I took possession of my new home, and during the past weekend, I spent both afternoons cleaning out every square inch of the place. It’ll be a while yet before we can move in, since there’s the matter of buying the furniture; it’s been remarkably fun to browse through catalogues and see what’s available. After the move, one thing I am looking forwards to will be spending more time honing my craft in cooking: I can cook well enough to get by, but it will be exciting to try out recipes I see in anime and films (the pan-fried fish and Japanese rolled omelettes Asuna is enjoying here look quite good, for instance).
- Having tried out some outrageous recipes on occasion (my favourite being a double burger topped with caramelised onions, mushrooms, cheddar cheese, bacon and a fried egg), I am getting old enough to feel that an afternoon doing housework or spent making something tasty is much more relaxing than trying to unlock weapons and attachments in hacker-filled multiplayer servers. A decade earlier, I had the reflexes to keep up with gamers, but nowadays, single player games are the only games I’ll seriously consider; they allow me to play at my own pace, and I can put the brakes on at any time to go anything else, whether it’s housework or go get some exercise.
- Asuna’s days of solitude come to a quick end when she encounters a beast on the bridge leading to her hideout. Fortunately, a young man, Shun, shows up and saves her. Although Shun has no intention of harming this beast, it turns out that said beast is in pain, so Shun shifts gears and decides to put it out of its misery. In the aftermath, Shun and Asuna become fast friends, with Shun being especially interested in the radio that Asuna is rocking. It turns out that, since Asuna’s radio uses a special crystal, it picks up broadcasts from another world, one that Shun is familiar with.
- Being able to appreciate the music means that a connection forms between Asuna and Shun. The events of Children Who Chase Lost Voices, in a bit of irony, mirror that year: I met the person I’d come to fall in love with in Japanese class, and things began in a similarly unexpected manner, when I showed up in Japanese class wearing a full suit after giving a presentation at the university’s undergraduate symposium. We subsequently paired up on a project, and while rehearsing for the presentation, some of my classmates from health science wondered if I’d met someone special because they’d spotted us on break, and watching this movie together on my iPad.
- At the time, I replied ‘no’ to my health science classmates; we’d been a great team and did well enough on the project, but we were merely classmates in Japanese at the time. Thus, we parted ways after term ended. However, as fate would have it, after the year ended, and I began studying for the MCAT, that this individual came back to my life – she’d started several summer courses, and I was wrapped up in studying for an exam far tougher than any I’d previously faced, so we supported one another through those busy times, getting to know one another better in the process. In Children Who Chase Lost Voices, Asuna’s time with Shun ends up being even shorter; he came up to the surface to seek out something, but falls off the cliff edge and dies in the process.
- The encounter with Shun might’ve been short, but the ‘blessing’ he provides for Asuna causes her heart to flutter. Timing is irrelevant in a romance, and people can indeed fall in love very quickly. At the opposite end of the spectrum, falling in love can sometimes occur only after a lengthy period of rediscovery and patience. Naturally, there’s no right or wrong approach; here, Asuna’s mother has returned home from her shift and is curious to know why Asuna appears to be preparing two servings of lunch. Asuna’s conversation with her mother suggests that despite spending little time together, the two remain quite close.
- Because she’s unaware of Shun’s death, Asuna ends up waiting for him, to no avail. Mirroring Asuna’s uncertainty, it is raining quite hard; from The Place Promised In Our Early Days onwards, Shinkai begins making extensive use of lighting and weather to convey a certain atmosphere and aesthetic. This is most apparent in Five Centimetres per Second, where snowfall comes to denote longing and separation. By The Garden of Words, however, Shinkai suggests that there is a romance surrounding light rain; it is only on rainy days where Takao meets Yukari at Shunjuku Koen. Being set before The Garden of Words, the rainfall in Children Who Chase Lost Voices is used in a more conventional manner.
- I remember seeing this scene in an early trailer for the film in late 2010, and altogether, the trailer had been remarkably captivating. Back then, Gundam 00: Awakening of the Trailblazer had just become available, and I was still a complete novice to anime movies. Gundam 00: Awakening of the Trailblazer had actually been the exception to the rule in that, while the anime movie had premièred in Japan in September, the home release became available just three months later, in December. Children Who Chase Lost Voices followed a much more conventional pattern: the film was premièred in May 2011 and hit the shelves a mere six months later.
- The length between a theatrical première and home release has steadily increased over the past decade, going from an average of six months to eight months. More popular movies, such as Shinkai’s more recent movies, Violet Evergarden, Girls und Panzer: Das Finale, Hai-Furi and SaeKano: Fine, had waits exceeding eleven months. Beyond being a bit of an annoyance, and something I’m fond of vociferously griping about, the gap actually has no bearing on my excitement about a given film; I’ve found that being able to watch a film at my own pace is really all that matters.
- As it turns out, Asuna’s father had died when she’d been young. Back then, she hadn’t quite been able to grasp the enormity of such an event, beyond the fact that her father wasn’t going to return. Shinkai chooses to set things during the winter, both to provide a vivid contrast to the warm weather of the present, as well as to show the extent of despair and sorrow in the moment. When Asuna’s mother explains that Shun had died, denial immediately sets in; Asuna’s certain that Shun is fine even though there’d been reports of a corpse found earlier.
- With Asuna’s original instructor preparing to head off on maternity leave, her class receives a substitute teacher in the form of Ryūji Morisaki, who provides a lesson about the world of the dead in Japanese folklore. Folklore and literature becomes an integral part of each of Shinkai’s subsequent works: after Children Who Chase Lost Voices, The Garden of Words, Your Name and Weathering With You each incorporate elements of classical Japanese mythology into details of his own creation. This creates a much more intricate, immersive world, and suggests that for Shinkai, his belief is that while things are always advancing, there are some traditions and values that shouldn’t be forgotten, either.
- The topic of an underworld from which the dead can be revived intrigues Asuna, who begins to believe there might be a way to see Shun again. She heads over to the library in pursuit of more knowledge, and although today, the consensus is that the planet’s interior is solid, composed of a rocky mantle and metallic core rather than being hollow, Children Who Chase Lost Voices is a story; fiction represents a space to explore what could happen if our wishes were realised, and more often than not, it turns out that having the power to do things like returning the dead to the world of the living often exacts a terrible cost.
- After classes end, Ryūji speaks with Asuna’s instructor and learns that Asuna is a focused, well-behaved student. Meanwhile, Asuna’s classmate suggests that Ryūji’s wife had died long ago when Asuna remarks that she has a few questions for Ryūji surrounding the day’s lessons. Although the conversation is incomplete to viewers, it solidifies the idea that Asuna’s life is a lonely one; Children Who Chase Lost Voices is an excellent example of a film where things are slowly laid out for viewers to follow, providing enough depth to be compelling, but at the same time, does not demand that the viewer have a solid background in Japanese folklore and beliefs.
- The precedence that Children Who Chase Lost Voices set carry forwards into Shinkai’s later works – Ryūji has been chasing the myth of Agartha since his wife had died. Delving through countless scrolls, tomes and commonplace books, he learnt that there were patterns throughout history to suggest Agartha was indeed real – originally, ancient beings known as Quetzalcoatl guided humanity, but humanity eventually reached a point where it could fend for itself, so the remaining Quetzalcoatl retreated underground and a few humans accompanied them.
- Ryūji deduces that Asuna had been the one who encountered Shun, and believes that Asuna’s interest in Agartha similarly stems from a desire to bring someone back from the dead. The visual clutter in Ryūji’s apartment shows the extent of his interest in the underworld; the interior is filled with books, maps and charts. Of note is a confidential report whose contents are rendered entirely in English. After his radio lights up, Ryūji sends Asuna home and asks her to not take any detours, but on her way back, Mimi appears, and Asuna heads off in pursuit. She spots a glint from her hideout and rushes up here, where she encounters a young man no older than herself.
- As it turns out, this is Shin, Shun’s younger brother. Their encounter is interrupted when an AH-1 Cobra shows up. The extent of Ryūji’s obsession with Agartha is such that he leads a paramilitary outfit known as Archangel to search for its entrance, and the fact that they possess a Cobra speaks to the extent of their resources – one could suppose that Archangel has investors who are curious about the wealth that Agartha possesses. When I first watched Children Who Chase Lost Voices, I initially thought that this was an AH-64 Apache, but the Cobra lacks the Apache’s distinct T700 turboshaft engines and single-barrel M230 30mm chain gun. Instead, one can spot the AH-1’s chin-mounted M197 20mm electric cannon.
- Members of Archangel corner Asuna and Shin at the cliff’s edge: two soldiers accompanying Ryūji are armed with the Uzi. Even now, I can’t readily identify the sidearm that Ryūji himself is carrying, but I remain impressed with the acrobatics Shin is capable of: surprising the soldiers, he carries Asuna and leaps down into the forests below in an attempt to shake Archangel and return to Agartha’s entrance. However, his actions also lead Archangel straight to said entrance: the AH-1 Cobra follows in pursuit and quickly determines where the pair ended up.
- The Clavis allows Agartha’s residents to carry out feats of superhuman strength and agility; with its magical properties, Shin moves a massive boulder to block off the entrance, before squaring off against a Quetzalcoatl he refers to as the Gatekeeper. This Quetzalcoatl was originally a guardian meant to keep outsiders from entering Agartha, but the Gatekeeper’s age means its senses are no longer as acute as they once were – it attacks Shin, forcing Shin to defend himself. However, using the Cobra’s 20 mm rounds, Archangel destroys the boulder with ease and enter the cave. Ryūji’s two soldiers then execute the Gatekeeper, and Ryūji identifies himself for Shin and Asuna’s benefit.
- While Shin had been intending to fight Ryūji and his soldiers, once Ryūji explains that he’s here to seek out the Gate of Life and Death to resurrect his wife, Shin relents and lets Ryūji and Asuna be – outsiders had previously came to Agartha to plunder its treasures, but Ryūji’s wish is something for Agartha’s gods to pass judgement on. Moreover, Shin’s original assignment had simply been to retrieve Shun’s Clavis fragment. After Shin leaves, Ryūji gives Asuna the choice to turn back or accompany him. Having come this far, Asuna makes the choice to follow Ryūji, yearning to bring Shun back to life and see what lies beyond.
- Ryūji leads Asuna onwards into the barrier separating the surface from Agartha: the Interstitial Sea. According to the legends, Agartha lies beneath this sea, which is composed of a fluid called aqua–vita, which is curious because aqua–vitae is the name for distilled spirits in reality. In Children Who Chase Lost Voices, this fluid possesses properties that allow for liquid breathing, and once Asuna adjusts to the unusual sensation, she and Ryūji follow a path that leads deep into the planet. The sheer scale of the constructs underground far surpass anything that modern humans have the capacity to construct, suggesting that ancient humans and the Quetzalcoatl would’ve worked together to make their underground realm.
- Asuna reawakens and is surprised that Mimi had accompanied them through the Interstitial Sea to Agartha. They find a Quetzalcoatl guarding the front entrance into Agartha, and Ryūji prepares to shoot it, but Mimi manages to convince the Quetzalcoatl that they’re visitors. As Ryūji and Asuna gaze upon Agartha’s landscape, the music crescendos majestically. The incidental music in Children Who Chase Lost Voices is composed by Atsushi Shirakawa (better known as Tenmon), who had previously worked with Shinkai on all of his films. Children Who Chase Lost Voices marks the last time Tenmon scores the music to Shinkai’s films, and to match the scope and scale of this film, the music has a much richer sound.
- Although Agartha is doubtlessly wonderous, the choice to have the entrance set in the open plains also serves to emphasise how vast and empty the underworld is. This disconnect creates a sense of melancholy: while Asuna and Ryūji might’ve arrived in Agartha, this land might not hold the answers to the questions they possess. In the skies above, the Shakuna Vimana passes by. These vessels originate from Hindu texts, and as Ryūji notes, they’re the chariot of the Gods. The fact that Children Who Chase Lost Voices From Deep Below draws from so much mythology would suggest that the world’s myths, at least in this universe, have a common origin in Agartha.
- While Shinkai’s previous films had been gorgeously animated, and his latest films surpass all expectations when it comes to visual detail, Children Who Chase Lost Voices is unique because it marks the first film set in a completely different world. This allows Shinkai and his animators to really explore landscapes and scenery from a fantastical world. In this regard, I do wish that Shinkai and his team would take a chance on settings beyond Tokyo: The Garden of Words, Your Name and Weathering With You feature Tokyo as its main setting, and as intricate as Tokyo appears, it would be interesting to see how Shinkai and his team’s advancing craft might portray other parts of the world, or other worlds.
- After reaching some stone ruins, Ryūji sets down and consults his notes to determine their next destination, while Asuna ends up going exploring and finds Agarthan potatoes that end up being surprisingly tasty; it turns out that Asuna was able to find some salt in the stone ruins. Surprised with Asuna’s high spirits, Ryūji asks about how she’s feeling, and she replies that she’d been feeling amped since their arrival because there’s something she’s seeking out. Viewers can conclude that a part of Asuna still yearns to reunite with Shun, and the excitement she’s feeling comes from this possibility.
- Back in a temple, Shin is debriefed by the elders; his original assignment had been to retrieve the Clavis that Shun had brought to the surface with him, and although he’d been successful here, the fact that is that Asuna and Ryūji have entered their world with another Clavis fragment in hand is worrying, suggesting that outsiders may yet interfere with things in Agartha and bring more troubles with them. To this end, the elders set Shin with recovering the Clavis fragment that Ryūji and Asuna possess. It turns out that Shun always been the preferred sibling for his powers, but possessed a desire to see the surface, which is what led him to Asuna. While Shin lacks the same power, he attempts to carry out his duties as best as he can.
- While Shin had been set the goal of recovering the Clavis in Ryūji and Asuna’s possession by any means necessary, and remarks to another girl in the village, Seri, that if required, he’d consider lethal force, the reality is that Shin is torn between doing his duties, and doing what’s right. Their conversation supposes that exposure to the surface accelerates any illnesses one may have, and that both Shun and Shin are orphans who were raised by the village. His loyalty to them is a result of wishing to pay back the village’s kindness, although these loyalties do begin shifting.
- Meanwhile, Ryūji and Asuna have taken refuge underneath a boulder to escape a rainfall. When Asuna makes an offhand comment about how Ryūji has come to be a father figure, Ryūji later dreams about the events that led them to Agartha. It turns out that his wife had died before he returned from his tour of duty during a war, and despite his efforts otherwise, Ryūji never moved on from his loss. The exact war is not known: while it would appear that Ryūji is fighting in the European Theatre during World War Two, he’s armed with an M4 Carbine with a Close Quarter Barrel Receiver. The M4 entered service in 1994, which complicates identifying which war Ryūji would’ve fought in, although since this is a dream, the smaller details would be secondary to the idea that Ryūji greatly misses his late wife.
- When Asuna falls asleep, she ends up being taken by the Izoku, enigmatic monsters who can only travel through solid surfaces in the shadows while there is light (but when it is dark, they can roam freely). These beings are a part of the natural order in Agartha, although for the purposes of Children Who Chase Lost Voices, they exist to act as a reminder that life in Agartha has its own challenges. When Asuna comes to in the stone ruins, she finds another girl, Manna, here. The pair attempt to escape, but to no avail; the area is sealed off, and the nearest exit is too high to reach.
- Fortunately, Shin arrives at the last possible second to save both Asuna and Manna. They manage to escape the ruins, but with the Izoku closing rapidly, Shin orders Asuna to jump into the river below; the Izoku have an aversion to water and will not traverse where water flows. The determined and plucky traits seen in Asuna bring to mind the likes of female leads from Studio Ghibli’s movies, marking a welcome new direction for Shinkai’s movies. Until now, I’d found that in his earlier films, the female leads were more passive, and lacked agency.
- Conversely, in Children Who Chase Lost Voices, Asuna is driven and takes the initiative to make her own decisions. These traits carry over to The Garden of Words, Your Name and Weathering With You; a part of why these films are so successful is because female leads are impacting the story to a greater extent. Here, Asuna attempts to prevent Shin from being swept away in the river’s fierce currents, but Shin ends up taking an Izoku’s claw to the back and is swept off. Asuna leaps off after them in an attempt to rescue the pair, but the currents end up overcoming her, too.
- The currents end up washing everyone downstream, where Ryūji finds them. Ryūji is relieved that Asuna is okay, but when Shin comes to and confronts Ryūji for the Clavis, he gets pistol-whipped. Disappointed with how Ryūji treats Shin, Asuna declares that they’ll bring Shin with them. Ryūji does not object, and upon arrival, their presence is almost immediately noted. The presence of outsiders prompt the local armed forces to appear; Agartha’s residents are deeply mistrustful of people from the surface, and here, a little more information is also provided regarding Manna: she’s mute as a result of having witnessed her mother’s death.
- The commanding soldier initially turns Ryūji and Asuna back; the outsiders are treated as an ill omen in Agartha, and despite Asuna’s requests to get Shin looked at, the soldiers stand firm. Ryūji has no quarrel with the people of Agartha and makes to comply, but the village’s master, who also happens to be Manna’s grandfather, requests that the group be allowed to rest for one evening as recompense for having saved his granddaughter. The soldiers leave, and the elderly man bring them back to his home, where Shin is looked over and allowed to rest. As it turns out, Manna’s mother was from Agartha, and her father was from the surface; this is why the soldiers refer to Manna as “defiled”.
- Speaking with the village’s master provides vital exposition that fills in remaining gaps about Agartha, and he explains that the antipathy for outsiders stems from a history where outsiders had arrived in Agartha to pillage and burn. Amongst historical figures who have done this include Julius Caeser, Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, Napoleon Bonaparte, Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin; it is implied that it was through the wealth of treasure and knowledge from Agartha that they were able to amass the resources to rule the world, but their expeditions also caused a great deal of harm and suffering to Agartha’s people. To prevent outsiders from returning, Agartha’s remaining residents sealed the gates that were once opened.
- The fact that people from the surface brought death and destruction with them, enough to annihilate Agartha’s once-great civilisation, explains why there is so much hostility towards outsiders, and why ruins litter Agartha. With their birthrate declining, Agartha’s once-mighty people are now scattered in a vast, empty land. The village Master is surprised that Mimi (technically a Yadoriko rather than a cat), is so friendly with Asuna. These beings are said to accompany humans while they live, and then return to the Quetzalcoatl in death. This revelation does seem to reinforce the idea that Asuna’s father had a connection with Agartha. Here, Asuna is surprised to be offered a bath, and the sharp-eyed viewer will have noted that Asuna’s not really had the comforts of home since arriving in Agartha.
- Being able to immerse herself in warm water and rest would seem like an unbelievable luxury after the trek she’d been on. Floral baths aren’t unique to Agartha, nor are the flowers present just for show. It turns out that taking a floral bath has some health benefits, and depending on the flowers used, different effects can be enjoyed, from improving circulation and skin hydration. Such a setup does look remarkably comfortable, although I’ve always been more of a shower person owing to the fact that a quick shower conserves water. After finishing up, Asuna gets dressed in an Agarthan-style outfit, and runs into Ryūji, who says the clothes don’t suit her, causing Asuna to pout.
- Agartha’s cuisine appears to have an East Asian influence: Asuna had been seen peeling a daikon earlier, and they use chopsticks. Dinner proves delicious, and Asuna spends it savouring every bite. Over their meal, Ryūji asks the Master about his desire to resurrect the dead; he reasons that while this act is verboten in Agartha, that it is prohibited must imply there is a way to do so. The Master’s attempts to turn Ryūji from his desires to no avail, and is unable to convince Ryūji that life and death are a part of the natural world. I imagine that Ryūji does end up getting some answers, but this is not shown: the Master asks Asuna to look after Shin, who’s awake now and becomes worked up after Asuna mentions Shun.
- The Master rightly notes that people who come to Agartha do so because of a great loss, and that a great many misunderstandings could have been avoided if said people had someone to talk to. This is true of Ryūji, and certainly true of Asuna. Through Children Who Chase Lost Voices, Shinkai aims to show how “adventure” is really just another way to say that after sustaining a loss, people wander. Without guidance and support, people can become lost in their own thoughts and venture down a path they might come to regret. As such, it becomes important to be compassionate and empathetic towards those who do suffer loss in their lives, while at the same time, giving them the space they need to recover.
- The next morning, Ryūji and Asuna prepare to head off by boat, but to Asuna’s surprise, Mimi stays behind. This is shocking because Mimi had remained faithfully by Asuna’s side all this time, and as such, the unexpected change in behaviour is a result of Mimi preparing for death. For Asuna, being able to say goodbye to Mimi and part ways is a turning point in her character; she’s able to make peace with the fact that she won’t be with Mimi forever, and this sets the precedence for letting go of Shun, as well. Ryūji and Asuna travel under a gorgeous sunrise, and this moment captures the peaceful atmosphere within Agartha, as well as the fact that it is a world in decline: a massive ruin can be seen in this distance.
- Mimi passes away, and after the Master reassures Manna it’ll be okay, the Master takes Manna out to a vast field, where Mimi’s remains are offered to a Quetzalcoatl. The one that arrives is an ancient one; one of its arms are blown off, although it accepts the offering and consumes Mimi. The Master notes that this is how Mimi returns to the world, and given the way things work in Agartha, one can suppose that here, the secret to immortality is simple enough: life is still finite, but what lingers after death, is what confers immortality.
- The vastness of the field where Manna returns Mimi to the world is a visual metaphor for life and death itself; Shinkai indicates that the openness of such a space allows one to see great distances, and in this way, being out here corresponds to one accepting that what lies beyond life is not something to be feared. While Manna cries for the loss of Mimi’s life, Shin speaks with the Master and wonders if Asuna is able to accept life and death as two halves of a whole. The idea that death is not something to be tampered with is a theme that has long permeated fiction, and authors generally agree that those who attempt to raise new life from the dead or cheat death itself will face inevitable punishment.
- The stakes increase when the village soldiers set off at full tilt for the same destination that Ryūji and Asuna are headed towards. The Master feels that their intention is to stop Ryūji and Asuna from reaching the Gate of Life and Death at all costs, even if it means killing them: Shin has spotted that the soldiers are carrying firearms, a sign that they mean business. When Ryūji spots them, he opens fire with his Uzi, but Shin uses his own dagger to knock the submachine gun from Ryūji’s hands before he can land any shots.
- Noting that he’s acting to save Ryūji and Asuna, freeing himself from the debt he’d owed them, Shun now faces off against the soldiers in combat. Going from the single-shot weapons the soldiers are carrying, they would be easily bested by anyone carrying repeating firearms; repeaters first appeared in 1630 with the development of the Kalthoff repeater, and by the 1800s, revolvers and lever-action rifles had become commonplace. Since reloading presumably takes a while, the soldiers switch over to their swords and duel Shin one-to-one. Shin’s prowess impresses the commander, but he is ultimately beaten back.
- The opening Shin creates allows Ryūji and Asuna to reach Finis Terra, a massive pit housing the Gate of Life and Death at its bottom. When Asuna glances over the ledge, the pit’s depth is such that the bottom cannot even be seen. This location likely was what inspired Your Name‘s scenery, when Taki and Mitsuha were finally able to meet one another during evening. However, Finis Terra (literally “end of the land”) possesses none of the warmth: it is raining here, and the skies are rapidly darkening as the sun sets. Tenmon uses an unearthly choir to convey the otherworldly feeling at this spot, which is easily the most unsettling place in the whole of Agartha.
- As Asuna attempts to climb down what is a vertical cliff shear, a current rushes upwards and threatens to dislodge her; the effort proves too much, and Asuna decides to turn around and return to the village at Ryūji’s suggestion. The moment had been quite unnerving, and viewers get the sense that whatever lies at the bottom of the cliff does not want any surface-dwellers present. Even ten years later, this part of Children Who Chase Lost Voices remains quite tense, speaking to the incredible effort that went into the aesthetics for this film. While many things in my world have changed in the past decade, that anime films can still elicit the same response speaks to their staying power.
- The extent of the changes to my world became clear earlier today, when I participated in a virtual panel to discuss career paths for alumni of my major. Joining me were my old program head, programme coordinator and two other panelists. While answering questions the students posed, I was sent down memory lane, recalling iconic health science moments, such as joining the lab that ended up being the basis for my graduate work, the various research symposiums I attended (and their free pizza), and the exams I studied for with my classmates. I was surprised to learn that there had been a question directed at me specifically, inquiring how I ended up as a mobile developer despite having started in health science.
- The answer I gave was simple enough: while health sciences is about medical science and health policy, the inquiry and analytical skills students cultivate are versatile enough to be utilised in other disciplines, and health science has always encouraged the multidisciplinary approach towards problem solving. Coupled with the fact that I already had basic understanding of programming and software development, the transition wasn’t as abrupt as one might imagine. It did come as a bit of a surprise to me that the other panelists had a similar career progression, but as the department head stated, it’s okay not to know of one’s destination early in the game.
- For Asuna, she set out for Agartha with a similar lack of destination in mind, and only vaguely knew that she wanted to speak with Shun once more. However, when the final leg of her journey becomes too much, she isn’t able to continue and turns back around. While this decision nearly costs Asuna her life, it also shows that Asuna is able to spot when things aren’t working. This is something that, during the panel, I mentioned as being an important thing to know – forcing ahead with something, as Ryūji does, can prove to be detrimental. However, Asuna’s journey is not meaningless, and her time in Agartha does prove instrumental in shaping her thoughts on life and death. Similarly, it is the case that one’s experiences, both good and bad, shape one’s current self, so if and when I’m asked, I do not regret taking a more crooked, uncertain path to the present, either.
- Unfortunately for Asuna, the creek she’s traversing runs dry, and this allows the Izoku to finally capture her. In desperation, Asuna trains the sidearm Ryūji had given her, but unaccustomed to its recoil, she misses her shot. The aurora borealis here are especially visible: the night skies in Agartha are aglow with the ghostly dance of the northern lights. In reality, aurora result from the interaction of solar wind with oxygen and nitrogen atoms (which cause electrons to jump orbitals and release photons when they return to their ground state). Under ground, one would suppose that, since the skies of Agartha are blocked off by Earth’s crust, solar wind would never interact with the oxygen and nitrogen atoms down here. However, since the sun is visible down here, one must suppose that there are other forces at work, too.
- I’m not here to break down the series for its faithfulness to reality because it is a meaningless exercise: just when Asuna is about to succumb to the Izoku’s grip, Shin shows up and kills the Izoku attacking her. The sun rises shortly after, forcing the remaining Izoku to retreat. With the morning here, both Shin and Asuna do feel as though there is new hope, now that the sun has risen. While the Izoku are a terrifying foe, Shin is able to kill one with a knife, leaving me to wonder if firearms would’ve been useful against them. The Izuko only show up in certain areas after night has fallen, and since the villages are safe, one must imagine that Agartha’s inhabitants have simply adjusted to their presence and placed their settlements away from the Izoku’s turf, rather than wage a campaign of extermination as contemporary humans are wont to doing.
- After Shin and Asuna share their memories of Shun, they allow one another the time to cry themselves out. Asuna had been holding back her feelings, but here, she finally lets her emotions out. While society has reservations about tears, crying is an effective means of flushing out sorrow and grief: the process releases oxytocin and endogenous opioids, which are hormones that create a feeling of calm. In the aftermath, both Shin and Asuna determine that they need to get Ryūji back – while he’s kept calm by his single-minded focus, this stubbornness has left him blind to the costs of resurrecting the dead.
- After finally reaching the bottom of Finis Terra, Ryūji locates the Gate of Life and Death and ventures inside. The Shakuna Vimana feels the presence of a Clavis crystal and makes its way over to hear whatever wish Ryūji has in mind. Thanks to numerous warnings, both from the village Master, and common knowledge about the costs of raising the dead back into the world of the living, viewers will immediately gain a sense of unease at what Ryūji is trying to accomplish. What follows is then simple enough; Shin and Asuna must get back down and reach the Gate of Life and Death to stop Ryūji.
- The same Quetzalcoatl that had accepted Mimi’s corpse has come here to Finis Terra to pass on, as well. Spotting Asuna and Shin, it offers them a ride down to the bottom, allowing the pair to bypass the treacherous descent that Ryūji would’ve had to had made. Coupled with Shin’s Clavis, the pair float down safely after the Quetzalcoatl vanishes from this world. I would imagine that the gap between Ryūji’s enormously difficult descent and the comparatively straightforward one Asuna takes is meant to be a metaphor for how sometimes, the things that are meant to be present much less resistance compared to the things we were not meant to have.
- Once inside the portal, Shin and Asuna spot a faint glow coming from Ryūji: he’s managed to contact the gods’ vessel, which transforms into a monstrous, multi-eyed being. After regarding Ryūji, it prepares to grant his wish. However, recalling someone from death is not an easy feat, and the gods must first use a vessel in order to carry out the process. Asuna is immediately seized, and she slowly begins taking on the appearance of Ryūji’s late wife. Even Asuna’s sacrifice isn’t enough: the energy involved draws out Ryūji’s life force, and he becomes scarred in the process.
- It is here that Shin chooses to act; to Ryūji, Asuna was expendable, and to grant Ryūji’s wish, Asuna would have to give up her life in order to allow Ryūji’s wife to come back. The question of sacrificing the young for the old is a very difficult topic, one that I’m certainly not qualified to discuss, but in Children Who Chase Lost Voices, Shinkai suggests that this isn’t up for debate: the outcomes of this film indicates that Shinkai hedges his bets on youth and giving them a shot at the future. To this end, Shin attempts to shatter the Clavis and stop the process, but Ryūji overpowers him, allowing the process to reach completion.
- Ryūji thus reunites with Lisa, and Asuna’s spirit is sent onwards, although Lisa appears to retain Asuna’s memories: she feels Shin to be familiar. Asuna’s spirit ends up meeting both Mimi and Shun; having found the strength to do so, Asuna manages to properly bid Shun farewell, and in this moment, Shin also shatters the Clavis. In her remaining moments, Lisa apologises for having lacked the strength to protect Ryūji and prepares to depart once more, leaving Ryūji to suffer the loss of death anew. By toying with forces beyond human comprehension, Ryūji ends up losing Lisa twice – this time would’ve hit even harder because Ryūji had, until now, been working towards this one moment, so to see everything taken away again would’ve been particularly devastating.
- Although Ryūji desires death to escape the pain of loss and asks Shin to kill him here and now, Shin implores Ryūji to live on instead. Asuna soon comes to, and unlike Ryūji, who’d come to Agartha with a very clear goal in mind and was unwilling to listen to those who tried to turn him away from his path, Asuna’s lack of preconceptions and singular objective in Agartha means that she was able to venture into this realm and gain something invaluable: knowledge and wisdom. Having now had the chance to properly say goodbye to Shun and Mimi, Asuna is finally ready to take a step forward and leave the deceased to rest.
- The three prepare to make their way back to Agartha’s gateway: Ryūji elects to stay behind and learn from the Agarthans in order to find peace and come to terms with his wife’s death. Here, they make use of a ramp that leads back to Agartha’s surface – it is not lost on me that, had Ryūji been more patient and bothered to research this detail, his descent would’ve been less difficult, but then again, had Ryūji appreciated something like this, he might have never made the journey to Agartha at all. As Children Who Chase Lost Voices draws to a close, Anri Kumaki’s Hello, Goodbye and Hello begins to play. This song brought a solitary tear to my eye when I first watched this movie, being both upbeat and melancholy at the same time.
- Some time later, Asuna returns to her old life on the surface, and having fully accepted that death is a natural part of life, is able to move on – she smiles before heading out the door for school, bringing the film to a close. While the themes in Children Who Chase Lost Voices are easily discerned, the me of ten years ago struggled to write about this film. I still had considerable difficulty with this post a decade later, but looking back, I would contend that, having ten more years of life experience and knowledge of Shinkai’s latest works together, is what allowed me to better convey how I feel about what is one of Makoto Shinkai’s lesser-known films. Children Who Chase Lost Voices is completely overshadowed by Garden of Words, Your Name and Weathering With You, but relative to its successors, is no less enjoyable and compelling, being an indispensable Makoto Shinkai experience. With this ten-year anniversary post in the books, I’ll return to wrap the month up with a talk on The Aquatope on White Sand after twenty-one, and remark that the MG Kyrios I ordered arrived today. I am looking forwards to building it once I confirm the status of the vacation time I’d requested a few weeks earlier.
Altogether, Children Who Chase Lost Voices represents Makoto Shinkai’s boldest, most daring film to date. New themes and new character traits come together in a fantastical story portraying a setting none of his works have ever portrayed. Whereas Shinkai focuses on Tokyo in his films, Children Who Chase Lost Voices is set in rural Japan and the legendary world of Agartha, a place of rolling hills, ancient ruins, endless plains and a treacherous crater housing the Gate of Life and Death. Each setting is rendered in stunning detail, whether it be the interior of Asuna’s house and classroom, to the village and landscapes of Agartha. The end result of this level of detail is that Agartha is brought to life, becoming as convincing as any real-world location Shinkai traditionally sets his stories in. Bringing out the best in Agartha makes it clear to viewers that this world is as real as the one we’re familiar with, and consequently, the learnings that Asuna picks up here are certainly applicable in the real world, as well. In an interview, Shinkai states that he wanted to create a more optimistic messages about parting ways, and Children Who Chase Lost Voices is a film that completely succeeds in this regard. It is unsurprising that after its release, the film was universally acclaimed; in fact, some people even began comparing Shinkai to the works of Hayato Miyazaki (although Shinkai himself dislikes this comparison, feeling it to be an overestimation of his own abilities). While Children Who Chase Lost Voices is overshadowed by its successors’ success, as well as the fact that in 2019, Sentai Filmworks lost the license to the film, the film remains a worthwhile watch owing to its trailblazing elements that would become commonplace in his newer films, as well as for its wonderful depiction of Agartha and a moving story that shows how, distance or not, people can persevere, overcome and learn. This film might no longer be as accessible as it was a few years earlier, but its contributions are nontrivial, and as such, fans of Makoto Shinkai’s works will greatly enjoy this journey to Agartha, one journey that should not be forgotten.
I really love Shinkai. For my money “Garden of Words” was one of the most beautiful anime ever made. “Weathering with You” was great and so was “Your Name.” Look forward to seeing this.
LikeLiked by 1 person
The Garden of Words really drove the level of quality skywards, which, when considering the sheer detail Shinkai has in his films, wasn’t something I thought possible. There are some moments that are photorealistic, and a few months ago, I picked up the artbook for The Garden of Words, which gives behind the scenes sketches of the background art. It is absolutely gorgeous.
LikeLiked by 1 person
I have never seen the green of foliage on a cloudy day so perfect nor rain so lovingly rendered in any anime.
LikeLiked by 1 person
…and just like that, I learnt to love rainy days 🙂 Before The Garden of Words, my disposition fouled on overcast days. This film changed my mind.
LikeLiked by 1 person
Oh, I have alwys loved rain, Life seems to quiet down when it is raining. Warm colors become muted and the blues and greens really come out. This could be my theme song…
LikeLiked by 1 person
Shinkai does Miyazaki! 😀
Here in the UK, this was retitled “Journey to Agartha” for some reason…
LikeLiked by 1 person
At an abstract level, Journey to Agartha does make sense on the grounds that the film is about a journey, and said journey does take Asuna and Ryūji to Agartha 😛 I wasn’t able to find anything on the rationale behind why it was renamed from Children Who Chase Lost Voices, though.
LikeLiked by 1 person
Sure it makes sense but the original title is more enigmatic! 😉
That, I have no disagreements with; the UK title practically gives it all away!
The title Children Who Chase Lost Voices sounds like it belongs to a classic ghost story (“They’re here….”) – or maybe something along the lines of Ghostbusters: Afterlife. Audiences who looked forward specifically to seeing something such as that, rather than what this film actually portrays, might’ve been dissatisfied. Perhaps the people responsible for UK release of Shinkai’s movie worried about that problem.
The fact that sun and stars are visible in Agartha strongly implies to me that it’s not actually inside Earth, but is actually another planet altogether – or perhaps another universe’s Earth – reached by way of a portal the characters passed through at some point without noticing they’d done so. My suggestion reminds me of Louis L’Amour’s novel The Haunted Mesa, in which the “hell” of Maya mythology, Xibalba, is a cruel but entirely human despotic culture in an alternate universe, and one of its access points is the titular Southwest-USA mesa. (The Wikipedia entry on Xibalba includes a cross-reference to Agartha.)
In Godzilla vs. Kong, the protagonists similarly enter a portal to the heart of the planet through Antarctica and find themselves firmly inside the planet, but despite this, there is a sun and sky there, as well. Both in Children who Chase Lost Voices and Godzilla vs. Kong, they must pass through a barrier of sorts, so a portal is more than plausible. This is one of those things about Hollow Earth portrayals I’m going to have to accept, since such concepts are, at least for the time being, beyond the realm of what we know about the universe.
i really love a lot of his movies but id never heard about the premise of this one, now i def need to watch!
LikeLiked by 1 person
Children Who Chase Lost Voices might be overshadowed by other of Makoto Shinkai’s works, but it’s definitely a worthwhile watch that matches his better-known films in terms of quality, both narrative and visual 🙂
LikeLiked by 1 person