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Children Who Chase Lost Voices From Deep Below (2011)
Director: Makoto Shinkai

review by Sarah Ash

A class of schoolchildren are studying the ancient Japanese creation legend of Izanagi and Izanami with a substitute teacher. Just as in the tale of Orpheus and his lost love Eurydice, Izanagi travels deep into the underground realm of Yomi to bring back his dead wife Izanami. But when Izanami warns Izanagi that he must not look at her, the temptation proves too great and...

Young schoolgirl Asuna (Hisako Kanemoto) is both intrigued and troubled by the ancient legend. She has made a simple crystal radio which she takes high into the hills above her home after school to listen out for an elusive and haunting melody that she once picked up before. Asuna is cheerful and independent - but alone much of the time, except for the company of a cute and catlike creature Mimi (Junko Takeuchi) as her mother works long shifts at the hospital to support the two of them after the death of Asuna's father.

When Asuna is confronted by a monstrous creature in the hills, she is rescued by a strange boy, who introduces himself as Shun (Miyu Irino). He tells her that the creature is a Quetzalcoatl and that it has come from the underground world of Agartha to die. And when it dies, its body changes into a crystalline form; the crystal Asuna has been using in her radio must have come from such a creature. But Shun has a tragic secret that he hesitates to reveal to Asuna - and when she learns the truth about him, she is devastated, as they have become close.

But - unknown to Asuna - others have been investigating the monster from the underworld and when Shun's younger brother, Shin (Miyu Irino), becomes involved, Asuna finds herself forced to accompany her substitute teacher Mr Morisaki (Kazuhiko Inoue) to Agartha to bring back his beloved wife Lisa from the dead. Ex-soldier Morisaki is a member of Archangel, a secret organisation dedicated to uncovering the mysteries of Agartha, and he has become utterly ruthless in his determination to revive his dead love. And the astonishing sight of a flying boat, the mystical ship carrying the god that will grant his wish, convinces him that he must see his quest through, no matter what the dangers. But they soon discover in the wild and ancient land of Agartha that Shun and Shin's people are a dwindling race, persecuted by invaders and treasure-hunters from the upper world - and hostile to the presence of the newcomers. It will take all of Asuna's courage and resilience to survive in this strange yet beautiful world - and to make it back to her life in the upper world.

At its heart, Children Who Chase Lost Voices From Deep Below is a film that explores loss and the coming-to-terms with death of those who live on. But it's also a wonderfully exuberant and imaginative fantasy adventure, painted with dramatic brushstrokes on a vividly colourful canvas. It looks gorgeous. From the loving portrayal of the intricacies of everyday small town life in Japan, seen as we follow Asuna from home to school and back again, to the strangely beautiful landscapes of the hidden world of Agartha, the viewer is offered a visual feast. Makoto Shinkai's films are especially good at sky-scapes and this one is no exception; Takumi Tanji, the art director, creates breathtaking vistas that evocatively communicate Shinkai's vision of the two worlds, above and below.

It's no secret that Children Who Chase Lost Voices From Below is reminiscent in several ways of classic Studio Ghibli films; from the strange creatures, like the Quetzalcoatl, that populate Agartha, and the costumes of the underworld's indigenous people, to the features of the human characters designed by Takayo Nishimura, Shinkai's vision also seems to be paying homage in visual terms to Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away.

Children Who Chase Lost Voices From Below attempts much more than it can achieve; once Asuna and Morisaki reach Agartha, so many new complications occur (many unheralded) that the adventure spirals wildly out of control, needing more screen time to be dramatically fulfilling. Even so, Shinkai creates such intriguing principal characters that the viewer is swept along by the sheer momentum of the action and captivated by the makers' obvious delight in creating the world of Agartha. And there is action in plenty, enough to keep fan-boys of all ages engrossed: Archangel is a militaristic-style secret society, equipped with armed helicopters and not afraid to use them to pursue its aims; Asuna is kidnapped by terrifying red-eyed monsters in Agartha; the warriors in Shin's village chase after Asuna and Morisaki, determined to cut them down.

Music plays a significant role in the film, especially in Asuna's quest for the elusive melody, and Mr Morisaki's little music-box whose fractured tinkling tune reminds him of dead Lisa. The swelling orchestral score by Tenmon (who also wrote the soundtracks for earlier Shinkai films) and although it's better than many offerings from Hollywood today, is not quite as unusual or compelling as I could have wished. I found myself longing for something more like imaginative use of ethnic music, as used by Yoko Kanno in Arjuna or Wolf's Rain.

But, putting these quibbles aside, Children Who Chase Lost Voices From Below is an engrossing, thoughtful and compelling fantasy adventure woven around the theme of loss and consolation. Its three protagonists are all isolated by the death of someone dear to them and in following them as they work through their grief, Shinkai draws on elements of world mythologies, as well as creating some fascinating new ones of his own. It certainly held the audience at the BFI screening spellbound when I saw it as part of the BFI anime weekend (8-10 June 2012.)

It's just been announced that Sentai Filmworks have licenced the film for a R1 DVD and blu-ray released later this year.

Children Who Chase Lost Voices From Deep Below

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