Review: Children Who Chase Lost Voices (2011)

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Children Who Chase Lost Voices From Down Below is screening around the country at the Reelanime Festival 13-26 September. Please check the website for session times.

Children Who Chase Lost Voices From Down Below might seem like an unnecessarily long title, (let’s be honest, like all of them seem to be) but director-writer Makoto Shinkai still hasn’t lost his ability to tell a poignant and entertaining story. This feature is, deep in its depths, about grief and acceptance, a tale of surprisingly weighty archetypal lessons couched in a high-adventure coming of age story.

Asuna is a young high school girl living with her mother. Her father died when she was young and she leads a very lonely existence in a small town, taking care of the house while her tired mother works night shifts, getting top marks in school and running up into the hills in her spare time in order to sit on a rock bluff and listen to the transmissions she picks up on her ham radio. One afternoon she hears a beautiful melody, and that night sees a strange light. The next day she encounters in this order – a frightening creature and a strange and alluring boy named Shun. The creature is, she learns much later, a dying Quetzal Coatl – one of the gatekeeper gods that once guided humankind but has since faded into otherworldly obscurity. The boy is from a tribe of people who chose to accompany these gods into their retirement and have remained cut off from the rest of humanity ever since.

But this isn’t where the story really starts; Shun in fact is merely a catalyst, a brief falling star that captures Asuna’s attention. The story starts when his younger brother Shin turns up to retrieve Shun’s crystal key that the down below tribes use to access the gateways between worlds, and it also starts when Asuna’s relieving teacher Mr Morisaki turns out to be a member of a nasty black ops organisation named Archangel who know all about the Quetzal Coatl and want their knowledge for undefined nefarious purposes. It starts, in fact, when Asuna is forced to make a decision about her life – stay in her own world, or follow the obsessed Morisaki into the underworld.

Shinkai has thought seriously about what he is saying and doing here. His messages are quite clear without being unsubtle or preachy and his articulation of his themes is deft, if perhaps a little overly long. He probably could have benefited from a tighter script, but that’s a minor concern in light of what he’s achieved – something meaningful if not fresh, something mature but that doesn’t for a moment belittle naivety. Asuna careens through the first part of the story merely by “going along” with things, but that’s just a survival mechanism. She yearns for something she won’t even admit to herself, and the moment she does, it is an emotional breakthrough both for her and the audience, a point of clarity where the film becomes not just an adventure but an allegory. Her weaknesses of character in light of this revelation are – unlike so many other anime characters bemoaning their own lack of efficacy – so much more meaningful and sympathetic; her previously superficial decisions reveal her to be someone struggling to understand herself, accept herself and as a result become stronger. By contrasting this struggle against the motivations of the adult she is closest to, Morisaki, who is perhaps too grown up to learn acceptance without breaking first, Shinkai neatly completes the picture and bestows upon the viewer a very satisfying conclusion.

That alone is worth the price of admission, but Children is also a wonderfully old-school adventure reminiscent of early Miyazaki – particularly of the imaginative Nausicaa Valley of the Wind – full of strange worlds and odd creatures, fraught with dangers both abstract and real, and saturated with the kind of heroics of spirit that proves that anime isn’t just panty flashing, shrill screaming, masculine posturing and crap blowing up. Surprisingly old fashioned, Children Who Chase Lost Voices From Down Below is the perfect combination of entertainment and moral lesson, the way all good fairy tales should be.

9 cat-like creatures that should have given the main character a clue out of 10.
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