Shinkai Makoto’s newest film, Children Who Chase Lost Voices From Deep Below (星を追う子ども), was screened on at last month’s New York Comic Con. The newest of Shinkai’s works, it shows heavy influences from Miyazaki, with multiple scenes and characters strongly reminiscent of those in Miyazaki’s films. At the same time, the film is markedly different from Miyazaki’s works, bringing with it the breathtaking scenery and poignant portrayals of moments from our everyday lives that we have come to expect from Shinkai. Perhaps the most interesting point of connect and point of difference between Miyazaki’s work and Children are the young female leads.
(A summary of the film is at the bottom of this entry.)
Both Miyazaki and Shinkai’s works feature tenacious, talented, and hardworking female leads. At the same time, whereas Miyazaki’s females are usually driven by clear hopes, goals, and backstories, Shinkai’s female lead in Children, Asuna, is often unsure of herself and lacks a concrete goal in her journey. The weakness of Asuna character makes her less heroic, but perhaps more relatable, than Miyazaki’s characters. Faced with the challenges and adventures of lives tinted by fantasy, both Miyazaki and Shinkai’s girls seem ready to take on whatever obstacles may come. Yet, while Miyazaki’s girls are self assured, know what they want, and are always ready to jump, Asuna seems to follow the lead of those around her, holding on to the fear and hesitation we would expect from a young girl.
It also seems as though Asuna sets herself up for catastrophe. Her hidden base, filled with with books, food, a desk, and an assortment of other items, is reminiscent of wartime shelters. She defies the warnings of her teacher not to venture into the mountains. Likewise, she defies the instructions of the mysterious man, Shun, who saved her from the demon, to not return to the mountain base. She also ignores the warnings of Shin against traveling into the underworld.
Her indifference to and perhaps blatant defiance of the warnings she is given along the way do not paint her as independent so much as they paint her as reckless, directionless, and unconcerned with her own well-being. She defies the warning about the bear just because she enjoys listening to the radio. She ignores the warnings about the underworld out of curiosity, not passion or goals. She seems to go along with things cheerily and with a great deal of bravery and inner strength, yet we fail to see the human ties and experiences, beyond her living largely alone, that have made her this way. In short, she is reminiscent of the strong female leads we have seen in Miyazaki’s and Satoshi Kon’s works, among many others, but she lacks the purpose that made these characters so strong and compelling.
Rather than being a flaw in Shinkai’s character development, this is something the Shinkai openly admits when she confesses towards the end of the film that she went on the journey out of loneliness. During the first half of Children we see Asuna as independent, taking care of the household herself like many of Miyazaki’s female leads. Unlike Miyazaki’s friendly young girls, though, Asuna appears to actively choose isolation over companionship. And while at the beginning of the film she seems a bit disappointed when her mother is not home, and excited by the prospect of eating with her mother, she does not not seem to miss her mother along the her journey in the underworld. The two figures with who she seems to have the strongest ties are Shun and Mimi, ties which are clearly problematic as she only met Shun briefly before his death and Mimi is a cat.
At the same time, that she cares for others is clear. She risks herself multiple times over the course of the film to save others. Along with this, her diligence at school and hard work keeping the house clean show that she cares for her mother and doesn’t want her to have to struggle or worry. Still, she seems uncertain of how to have relationships even when presented with opportunities. She generally turns down the offers of her classmate to walk home from school together. When back at her mountain outcropping with Shun she has him listen to her radio rather than conversing with him. Even with the teacher, Morisaki, she cooks and washes his clothes for him, yet their journey seems largely silent. The closest relationships she develops in the underworld is with a young girl who is mute, and with Shin who associates her with is own ostracism and the death of his brother.
How then should we read the movie’s end in terms of Asuna? If loneliness drove her to this new world, she certainly did not leave the new world with more friendships. Asuna was forced to part ways with Mimi, and the teacher, Morisaki, was willing to give her up to revive his dead wife. Her strongest ties formed were with Shin, but he cannot survive on the surface world. In terms of physical companionship, Asuna loses much over the course of the journey.
Yet, if we understand loneliness to be more than physical companionship, and to be comprised as well of memories and psychological ties, then Asuna gained much through the course of her journey. Beyond her connections to the individuals she met along her journey, she formed connections with the land Agaruta itself. And through the act of separation with the surface world, it is possible her understanding of her own world, the people she interacted with everyday, and the place they hold in her life, became clearer. These experiences and memories along the journey through Agaruta provided Asuna with a basis for understanding of her place relative to her friends, the inhabitants of her home world and Agaruta, and to the worlds themselves. In this sense, the journey could allow Asuna to escape from her loneliness rather than dragging her further into it. Even those friends she loses along the away (Mimi, Shun, Shin, the mute girl) leave her with memories. It is this sense of hope that the film’s end leaves us with.
The movie tells the story of a young girl, Asuna, in a rural Japanese town removed from time. The town features the cars, trains, schools and storefronts that have inhabited the Japanese countryside for decades past and will likely continue to do so for decades to come. Her father deceased and her mother working full time on the night shift as a nurse, she occupies herself with listening to a homemade radio, always accompanied by her small orange and black cat, Mimi. The radio is housed in a metal box, and works using a crystal she received from her father. With a cork as an ear piece, she sits on a rock outcropping high above the town and tunes into whatever frequencies she can find.
At the start of the film we see her returning to a man-made cave near the mountaintop filled with all manner of objects, from books to packaged foods. She goes up to the rock outcropping, sets up her radio, and tunes into a mystic and foreign song. Laying back her ears are filled with the mysterious music slightly reminiscent of a whale’s song. Night approaches, and the scenery is flooded with the red, orange, pink, purple, and blue hues of Shinkai’s sunsets above the darkened town with its lights twinkling on. The music moves her with emotions carried by the wordless song.
Time passes, and the tale moves on. A demon who was once good but has become crazed appears in the mountains near her secret base. As it moves to attack her, the girl is saved by a mysterious young man using a strange crystal. He introduces himself as Shun, thanks her for listening to the last song, then blesses her with a kiss. She blushes and hurries off, promising to meet with him the next night, but he is not there, and she hears rummers of his death. Confused by and initially in denial of this news, she becomes fascinated by a reading of the Kojiki on Izanagi’s attempt to bring his partner back from the underworld. After school she visits the home of the substitute teacher, Morisaki, to ask him more about the underworld. In response he shows her books that claim that the underworld is real, but quickly sends her home. Returning to the outcropping she finds a boy who looks almost identical to the one who had died, yet he denies that he is Shun.
The world is thrown into chaos as helicopters and soldiers appear, firing at and trying to capture them. The boy drags her along with him into deep caves below the earth. She makes her way with him to the underworld using Shun’s crystal, the key to the underworld. With them sneaks in the substitute teacher who was a part of the military forces that were pursuing them. They split up, with the young boy who revealed himself to be Shun’s younger brother, Shin, taking the crystal back to his village.
The underworld is a beautiful land of green fields and blue skies, but covered with ruins. Its inhabitants have seen torture and destruction at the hands of world leaders who over time sought the powers they believed the underworld held. Morisaki, who seeks to revive his dead wife, she crosses the great plains towards the center of the underworld where the gate to the dead lies. They pass by many a village in ruin, although some remain healthy. All the while Asuna is accompanied by Mimi.
They are soon pursued by Shin and the guards of other villages sent to prevent the duo from destroying the order of things and bringing back the dead. Skeletal demons too pursue them, coming out of the darkness to consume the outsiders. As they enter a boat to go down the river for second to last stage of the journey, Mimi stays behind. An elder of the underworld explains that she is a demon whose mission it was to protect the girl, and now her task was over.
Devastated and in tears, Asuna leaves Mimi and travels down the river. Faced with the final task of climbing down a giant hole that appears miles wide and continues down far below the point where light fails to reach, she loses her will. It is here that she comes to the discovery that the reason she made the journey was out of loneliness.
Worried about the fate of Morisaki and with Shin frightened of the repercussions of reviving the dead, they travel together to the land within a black orb at the bottom of the whole. There they encounter Morisaki, who is informed by God that if he wishes to revive his dead wife he will have to both sacrifice his eye and find a vessel for her spirit to inhabit. He chooses the girl, and his wife’s spirit takes the girl’s body, reforming it to reflect her own form. She tells him that he should be happy, and Shin breaks the crystal used to transport the teacher’s wife’s body into the girl’s.
In the end the teacher leaves, Shin is no longer recognized by his village but also cannot survive in the human world, and the girl returns home.