By Bob Clark
In honor of this film’s showing as a part of the New York International Children’s Film Festival, this piece is being rerun. A schedule for the entire festival, including one morning screening for this film that’s still open as of this posting, can be found here.
For years now, writer/director Makoto Shinkai has been called “the next Miyazaki”, a kind of praise that arrives sounding more like a challenge, and for years he’s managed to do his best at avoiding it, lest he be burdened with the prospect of living up to it. Never mind the fact that his previous efforts all betray less similarities to the master’s work than that of more modern directors– Voices From a Distant Star and The Place Promised In Our Early Days especially owe a far greater debt to Hideaki Anno than his mentor in the Nausicaa days. Perhaps with Five Centimeters Per Second we began to see more of a Ghibli-esque tone, with the realistic setting and sentimental romance, but even then it feels closer to efforts like Whisper of the Heart than the epic fantasies that Miyazaki has made over the course of three decades. Well, with his latest effort, and from the looks of it perhaps his first made expressly as a work of feature theatrical-bound animation (all the rest of his work betrays their OVA roots, even at their best moments), Shinkai finally rises to the challenge and delivers on the promise of those hyperbole compliments. It may be early to say that Children Who Chase Voices From Deep Below earns Shinkai a place in the canon of anime-auteurs alongside the likes of Miyazaki, Anno, Oshii or the late Satoshi Kon, but I’d rather be early than fashionably late to the party on this one.
To be sure, this time the influences from the Studio Ghibli founder are clearer and stronger than ever before. In its story of a girl off on an adventure into the ruins of a supernatural realm with connections to ancient mysteries and civilizations, it recalls both Castle in the Sky and Spirited Away, with the narrative resemblances deepened by Shinkai’s more vividly fantastical imagination this time around. In all his past works, there was a strong reliance on painting environment largely gleaned from still-photographs of actual locations, mostly from Tokyo and the surrounding suburbs– a technique visible throughout much of Hideaki Anno’s work, with certain images finding themselves almost carbon-copied in Voices From a Distant Star and The Place Promised In Our Early Days. One can feel the traces of Miyazaki immediately from the pastoral locations in the real world and that of Agartha, a realm accessed underneath the Earth where a young girl and her mysterious substitute teacher venture forth in order to bring their loved ones back from the dead. But Shinkai is willing to go into darker places than that director, or at least more openly violent ones (a creature the young girl encounters early on feels like a carnivorous cousin to the Totoro clan), something that may be accounted for in his occasional dips to the Evangelion well for inspiration (most of the monsters in this film feel as though they could’ve been repurposed Angel designs, and the presence of a Gnostic military leader willing to sacrifice anything or anyone’s blood to further his personal goal feels one fig-leaf shy of a twisted NERV). This is where his voice as a writer and director begins to take real shape, apart from his skills as a stylist as evidenced in his previous efforts– one generation’s lightness and imagination mixed with another’s taste for darkness and abstraction.
Like all the masters who came before him, Shinkai builds from a system of influences and homages that slowly build into something startling and original. Looking back from his earliest efforts, it’s easy to see a basic pattern of visual mannerisms and basic themes being repeated here– poetic landscapes of sheltering skies, lush with details of light, color, cloud and stars; variations of isolation and distances between individuals, especially along different high-concept sci-fi or fantasy terms. What’s missing this time is the urban locales, that grounding feeling of the contemporary that was present throughout all of his previous efforts, save for large portions of his last work, Five Centimeters, with which Children Who Chase Voices shares a timeless spirit in its largely small-town settings, at least when it stays in the real world. More and more, Shinkai has found himself drifting from modern cities and futuristic genre concerns as ways to express his concerns with the ways in which people bear the feelings of disconnect from one another, and as such has effectively taken his work out from the politics of a technophobic present into something more akin to an archetypal study of the universal condition of human loneliness. It may have been easy to look at the cell-phone texting lovers of Distant Star or the parallel-reality dreaming childhood friends of The Place Promised with a skeptic’s eye for the ways that modern systems of communication and civilization drag people apart even while giving them tentative access to one another, but to see the quaint, old-fashioned mannerisms of Five Centimeters or the positively ancient aspirations of Children Who Chase Voices, it becomes clear that we’re dealing with an artist who seeks to look beyond the provincial place in time, and to a larger set of human experiences.
Perhaps this is why he has always cast his animator’s gaze upwards to the heavens– there really is nothing quite like a Shinkai sky, the likes of which takes reproductions of stray light passing through clouds or atmosphere and turns it into whole epic landscapes of their own– something that man has always looked up to in fascination, a common object of fascination, expressing whole lifetimes’ worth of distance and desire as we spread throughout the globe, getting further away from one another all the time. This time there is a larger appreciation for the whole breadth of the natural world, with plenty of wide portraits of environments above and below, and smaller, happenstance details captured along the way. Shinkai here begins to use common Japanese artifacts of nature like mountain-caves, windblown plains of grass and tiny dragonflies in the same way that he has used thin wisps of cloud-strands, thick bulbs of cumulonimbus or manufactured beams of magic-hour sunlight painting the heavens in eternal shades of twilight. This adherence to the physical personality of the land itself, with all kinds of natural and ruinous variations to behold, helps build a fine sense of credibility for the fantasy landscapes of Agartha, and provides a keen sense of detail and direction for the more abstract conceptions that he builds to the closer his protagonists get to their Orphic goal.
The more he deals with the subject of death as the distancing mechanism between his characters this time, the more abstract he pushes his imagery and set-pieces, resulting in a steep but easy climb of drama and vision that keenly puts light, the fundamental core of his aesthetic style, into the very action itself. Being a much more traditional, mainstream effort in terms of scope and scale than his previous efforts, Shinkai’s work here displays a tremendous creativity with the grammar of anime-adventure storytelling, the likes of which Miyazaki has cornered in fantasy for the better part of 20 years and that directors like Anno, Oshii and Kon have staked their own claims in with sci-fi. The Place Promised successfully straddled between those two extremes for its focus on dreams, alternate realities and the conjecture of science binding these ideas together, and though Children Who Chase Voices leans heavier on the side of fantasy, there’s still enough smidgeons of scientific theory throughout, at least in the anthropological sense, to give everything a ring of the possible, for its own lucid dream logic. At its best moments, Shinkai comes close to creating the cinematic equivalent of the hushed, tragic landscapes of isolation and despair in Fumito Ueda’s video-games, or the pitched, tragic fairy-tale storytelling of Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. Though it has its share of weaknesses, mostly concerning the self-diagnosed platitudes of life-and-death and the mixed up feeling of its hand-me-down mythology, the film is by far one of the clearest and most beautiful examples of contemporary anime, and one that is destined to go down as a classic in its own right. By this time, Makoto Shinkai deserves better than to be handed the placeholder honorary of being “the next Miyazaki” or “the next Anno”. One would do better, at this point, to try and look for “the next Shinkai”.