Thursday, March 21, 2013

Children Who Chase Lost Voices (Makoto Shinkai, 2011)

Children Who Chase Lost Voices

Makoto Shinkai is a bit like the M. Night Shyamalan of anime. After a breakout directorial effort with 2002's Voices of a Distant Star, which Shinkai made almost entirely by himself, many were ready to dub the young animator "the next Hayao Miyazaki." His subsequent works didn't exactly pay off that early promise, however, instead drawing criticism that he was simply rehashing the same formula, which was increasingly scrutinized as emotionally self-indulgent and intellectually shallow. In snootier circles, he's nowadays often derisively dismissed for his lack of depth and narrow thematic scope. Nevertheless, he remains one of the very few anime directors whose name can viably be employed in the marketing for his works ("a Makoto Shinkai film").

Even most of his admirers have, at some point, expressed a wish that Shinkai might stretch himself a bit more artistically to explore some different themes, instead of always the same old meditation on love and longing. I wonder if this is altogether fair. Some of our most celebrated classical authors had only a single story, whether because they literally only completed one work, or because they spent their careers, not rehashing or recycling, but refining and revisiting from different angles the themes they themselves were most taken by. I mean, does anybody complain that Jane Austen needed to branch out beyond romance? Or that Herman Melville should have moved past fatalistic sea expeditions after White-Jacket? Anyway, Children Who Chase Lost Voices is terrible.

As far as Shinkai rehashing the same old themes, Children Who Chase Lost Voices is, yes, still about how one copes with being separated from the one you love, although that central thread is frequently lost amid action and adventure elements that seem way outside the director's forte. This time, the story focuses on characters whose loved ones have passed on to the other side, and the protagonists decide to deal with it by literally forcing their way into the land of the dead. One man means to bring his late wife back, while Shinkai himself, in the promotion for the film, described it as "a journey to say farewell." Either way, it's a compelling idea, previously explored in the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, as well as other similar tales found in every culture. It's wasted in Children Who Chase Lost Voices, however, because the movie's underworld is not interesting, its characters are poorly defined, and the story lacks focus.

If Shinkai ever merited comparison to Hayao Miyazaki, it was not because he was in any way a similar kind of storyteller, but because, like Miyazaki, he was a director who would roll up his sleeves and draw his own movie. Children Who Chase Lost Voices is an interesting departure for Shinkai, then, in that he was more hands-off on the art, and the movie actually does appear to be an attempt at a deliberately Miyazaki-esque adventure. In fact, at times it almost crosses a line from homage over into shameless ripoff territory. The first act, in which the female protagonist is rescued from a supernatural end by a mysterious and beautiful young boy, recalls the relationship between Chihiro and Haku in Spirited Away, though executed with far less finesse or perceptiveness. There's an image right out of Castle in the Sky, in which the lead girl and boy are in a cave dimly lit by the glowing crystal in their possession. And the seemingly omnipresent yet unknowably distant god of the underworld reminded me of the Shishigami from Princess Mononoke.

What really sinks Children Who Chase Lost Voices is that, whereas Miyazaki's work transcends a lot of what the word "anime" tends to connote here in the West, Shinkai's movie succumbs to virtually every bad anime cliche and storytelling pitfall—self-obsessed adolescents, convoluted plot told through turgid expository segments, obscure mythological references, nebulous philosophizing, irrationally motivated characters who undergo frequent and sudden changes of heart, and so on and so forth. The world that Shinkai builds here also falls far short of Miyazaki's fantasy settings. It's richly drawn and full of color, but there is a dearth of interesting sights. The land of the dead is mostly empty plains and deserted ruins, its only inhabitants being some xenophobic tribesmen and a hostile race of deranged shadow creatures that cannot abide sunlight or water. It doesn't help that the story seems to take forever to get going, as roughly the first third or so is spent in the real world just setting up the idea of the journey to the underworld.

The one great image I take away from Children Who Chase Lost Voices is that of the young female protagonist, near the end of her journey, trudging her way through the night along a river, her only refuge from the shadow creatures that endlessly crowd the banks, as she questions what she had been seeking in the land of the dead in the first place. The character is so poorly developed throughout the rest of the movie, having no rational motivations for almost any of her actions, but this scene at least is gorgeously animated, as she finally finds herself on her knees as a stunning aurora proclaims the break of dawn. We gather that her experience has been not only physically but also emotionally draining. Rather than Shinkai trying to do Miyazaki, this is Shinkai at his own best—not doing epic adventures, but depicting deeply cut young souls burdened to exhaustion by all they cannot let go of that has already let go of them.

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