According to Japanese anime director Makoto Shinkai, his latest film Children who Chase Lost Voices from Deep Below is a study of “how people are connected” and the relationship between individuals. Although the film is designed primarily for a young audience, adult themes of love and loss abound in its story of mourning lovers attempting to reach out to lost ones across the dimensions. Its theme can also be said to encompass the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism: Life is full of suffering, suffering is caused by attachment, release from suffering is attainable, and there is a path to the end of suffering. Here, the path is setting your loved one free and “saying hello” to a world without them.
Nominated for best animated feature at the Asian Pacific Screen Awards in 2011, the film takes us on a journey to a land deep below the surface of the Earth, the legendary country called Agartha where it is rumored the dead can be brought back to life. Unlike other visionary depictions of mythical kingdoms, Agartha has no magical cities of gold with tall towers and futuristic technology, but rather a rural environment of towns and villages in which mundane life appears similar to those who are called the “topsiders,” those who live on the surface (us).
Supported by the ethereal soundtrack of Tenmon, the plot of Children who Chase Lost Voices from Deep Below centers around the quest of a young girl of around 11 or 12 named Asuna Watase (Hisako Kanamoto) to find the mythical Agartha, talked about by her substitute teacher, Ryugi Morisaki (Kazuhiko Inoue). Mirroring the Greek legend of Orpheus and Eurydice and its Japanese equivalent, the myth of Izanagi and Izanami, Morisaki longs to travel to Agartha to find his deceased wife Lisa and bring her back with him to Earth. Asuna has also lost a loved one. Her father died when she was little, compelling her mother to work long hours as a nurse. Lonely and withdrawn, she spends her time after school in her private mountain retreat listening to the crystal radio her father had given her.
One day, after hearing beautiful and strange music from her radio, she meets a young boy with supernatural powers named Shun (Miyu Irino), who saves her from the attack of a ferocious bear-like creature. Returning the next day, Shun tells her that he is from Agartha, a land deep inside the core of the hollow Earth. Surprised by a blessing from Shun in the form of a kiss on the forehead, Asuna leaves suddenly but when she comes back the following day, she learns sadly that Shun, while trying to reach for the stars, has fallen off a ledge and died.
Telling her story to Mr. Morisaki, the teacher informs her that in the ancient times, humans were guided by creatures known as “Quetzalcoatls,” a name we know from Mesoamerican history as the Aztec God called the “Feathered Serpent” who, according to legend, promised to return one day to lead his people. When Asuna once again returns to her hiding place, she discovers a boy who looks like Shun but who claims to be his brother Shin (Irino). Morisaki poses as a warrior of the group called the Arch Angels, those who want to reach Agartha but are interested only in its wealth and superior knowledge. Morisaki, however, simply wants to find his dead wife Lisa.
Using a device known as a “clavis,” he and Asuna enter the underground realms and begin their travel to the Gate of Life and Death, “the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns.” The journey through the subterranean realms is filled with both beauty and the obligatory horror, the norm for sci-fi adventure stories for children. Asuna and Morisaki are attacked by fearful long-toothed monsters and have to rely on the powers of Shin to save them, even though he had been given the task of retrieving the “clavis” which they possess.
The remainder of the film is filled with numerous plot twists and turns that introduce other characters and some of it can be confusing. The viewer is treated, however, to ravishing visuals that invoke the experience of dimensions far beyond our limited reality. Ultimately, Morisaki and Asuna are forced to choose whether or not they wish to pursue their goal in Agartha or let go and surrender to the wisdom of the universe, and the theme song of the film by Anri Kumaki, “Hello, Goodbye and Hello,” exquisitely embraces the conflicting emotions the characters feel.
Whether or not you have recently lost a loved one, you may find the tears hard to resist. Children who Chase Lost Voices from Deep Below is the first of Shinkai’s films that I have seen and it definitely encourages me to see more. Comparisons of Shinkai’s themes and style have been made with those of Hayao Miyazaki, but since I have only seen one of Miyazaki’s films, I will leave the comparisons to others and just enjoy the warm glow of Shinkai’s stunning achievement.