Makoto Shinkai’s new film Children who Chase Voices From Deep Below (a name so long and unwieldy that many opted just to call it “the Shinkai movie” in conversation) was screening at Otakon, and seeing as the line to watch the film didn’t stretch across the entire building, I made a Saturday morning out of it.
I will preface this review by saying that I’m not a Shinkai aficionado. I saw Voices of a Distant Star when I heard that it was a one-man job, and upon hearing that the director’s other films didn’t veer far from his first, I didn’t bother to watch him grow. I didn’t really believe he would. But Shinkai has grown with this film, that much is clear. The only problem is that he’s grown into something that’s a little too familiar.
Ghibli. Let’s all just say the word now, as many times as we need to. It was certainly the only word on anybody’s lips as they walked out of this film. If nobody had told the audience who made the film, and if we had quizzed them coming out of the Otakon premiere, they probably would have said “That was a Studio Ghibli movie!”
It’s impossible to overemphasize the resemblance. At the first rampaging beast — a hairy, jewel-encrusted boar thing out of Princess Mononoke — I thought “hey, that’s quite a spot-on Ghibli homage!” Then I saw everything else in the film and retracted that statement. When you take this much from someone else, no matter how good a job you do with it, it can’t really be called homage anymore.
Everything about this film — the character designs, the world, the creatures, even the story itself — is so close to something Hayao Miyazaki’s studio might have produced that you might think Shinkai made a film to show them alongside his resume.
Here’s how it goes: a young girl, fond of remote woodlands and amateur radio, chases her lost first love — of two days — into another world beneath the earth, Agartha. She’s followed by a lovelorn school teacher/secret agent who’s been in search of the secret land himself: according to forgotten legends, it’s a place where even the dead can be resurrected.
While Shinkai’s pet theme — moving on after burying somebody you loved — rests at the heart of the film, Children is in another genre entirely. It’s a fast-paced adventure: if not for a surprising amount of bloody violence, we even might be able to call this a “family” film in — yes, of course — the Ghibli framework.
Shinkai is often noted for his beautiful backgrounds, and he clearly has a budget at his command that competes with the big-ticket anime film productions of the last few years: in addition to aping Ghibli, Children is in competition with it for sheer production quality. Both the Japanese countryside and the decaying land of Agartha are rendered gorgeously, in the most minute detail. The landscapes and the creatures are more alive than anybody in the film: such amazing images are, when they come, the best moments.
So Children is a beautiful movie, it evokes Ghibli, what’s the problem? The problem is that when you evoke (okay, rip off) Ghibli the way this film does, you offer yourself up for an unfair comparison. More than the production, it’s the characters and story of Children that don’t stack up.
As you’re likely aware, Miyazaki tends to use the same heroine over and over in his films, and like many other things in this film Children’s heroine appears to be a borrowed version of the “Miyazaki girl.” The difference between the two is that the “Miyazaki girl” is defined: she’s innocent, but she’s independent, capable, and strong of spirit. In this movie, we never really get a sense of what the heroine’s like as she’s dragged from one event to the next: she serves more as a wide-eyed witness than a character.
She’s a witness to the real protagonist of this movie, the obsessed teacher. In the Q&A following the film, Shinkai told us that this character was based heavily on the protagonist of his previous 5 Centimeters Per Second. While the heroine (and the hero too!) seem like they’ve come out of the Ghibli file, this is the only one who feels developed and human, and he represents everything — the sobering, inescapable life lesson that runs directly contrary to the ambitions of the characters — that Shinkai was trying to bring to this children’s adventure film.
Even as a little girl runs from shadow beasts and a young boy is beaten to within an inch of his life, Shinkai’s somber mood pervades. In a precious few moments, it resonates. In other moments, I found myself drowsy despite the constant action. In the end, as they climb up out of the very bottom of the earth having hit us square in the face with the message, nobody but the teacher feels like they’ve actually gone anywhere: especially not the heroine. The fantasy adventure and the somber meditation on death never felt like they’d fully gelled together.
Though it borrows too much, though it’s a bit of a mess, Children gives me great hope for Makoto Shinkai, a creator I hadn’t followed closely in the past. As otaku making kids’ movies go, he’s certainly done better than Welcome to the Space Show. Five years from now, he’ll probably make a masterpiece. He’s taken a big step with this film, even if only into Ghibli’s shoes: let’s hope that for his next movie Shinkai steps right out again.
(A final note: though I want to assume that this was mandated by the rights-holders at Media Factory, who are famously active against piracy ever since the Internet got to watch the first episode of the totally-forgotten Akane Maniax a few days early, I’d like to make note of something. Having five or six Otakon staffers walking through the aisles in search of recording devices for the entire film was a little bit intrusive. At least keep out of the frame, guys!)