Blu-ray Review: CHILDREN WHO CHASE LOST VOICES (Sentai Filmworks)

J Hurtado, Contributing Writer
Shinkai Makoto is one of the rising forces in modern anime . His work on shorts like Voices From a Distant Star led to early critical and commercial success, but it was The Place Promised in Our Early Years & his triptych 5 Centimeters Per Second that really sealed the deal and made him a big name. Though I've only seen a couple of his features, even I can pick out his very particular style, and it is nice to have a filmmaker with a distinctive look. Shinkai's latest, Children Who Chase Lost Voices (From Deep Below) both expands on that look and reverts to a bit too much homage for my taste. What we get is a something on the order of a band that plays your favorite soft rock hits of the '80s, polka-style; in other words, a film made up of glaringly obvious Ghibli references shot in Shinkai's signature pastels. It makes for a frustrating feature, or, as our own Niels Matthijs put it:

With Hoshi O Ou Kodomo Shinkai once again returns to a more fantastical setting, though instead of creating something similar to "Kumo no Muko, Yakusoku no Basho", Shinkai seems to have found a lot of inspiration in the collective work of Studio Ghibli. People like to compare Hoshi to Laputa (for very obvious reasons), I would like to add Mononoke Hime to that equation. When you combine the adventures of a young kid guided by a mysterious crystal with the guardians of the world you get awfully close to the synopsis of Shinkai's latest....

In the end though, Hoshi O Ou Kodomo isn't as convincing as Shinkai's previous films. There is something not quite right with the whole fantasy setup. Maybe it's because of the fact that it refers too much to known Ghibli universes, or maybe it's because the mythical folklore just isn't interesting enough. Whatever it may be, the film does not cash in sufficiently on its exploring potential. Finding out about a fantastical world should be fun an exciting, but the film lacks this feeling from time to time, failing in its setup. It's not a persistent lack of interest though as there are definitely moments where the fantasy world is allowed to shine, Shinkai just can't keep that feeling present throughout the entire film.

I'll go one step further, in addition to the blatant references to Laputa: Castle in the Sky and Princess Mononoke, I also caught not so subtle references to Kiki's Delivery Service, Spirited Away, My Neighbor Totoro, and Nausicaa. Most of these aren't exactly straight rips, except for Castle in the Sky, but thematically and stylistically, the film feels more like a Miyazaki clone than a Shinkai original. It's unquestionably well put-together, but the deficit in creativity really bothered me.

The story about a young girl who makes contact with an ancient mystical civilization "from deep below" is pretty much the story of Castle in the Sky. The alternate dimension in which this dying civilization lives reeks of Spirited Away. Many of the creature designs are a hair's breadth from being tracings of the forest creatures from Mononoke. I wish I could've turned off the monologue in my head that kept pointing these things out, but where you ape the best known animator in the world, someone is going to notice.

All of that whining out of the way, Children Who Chase Lost Voices is an amazingly and entrancingly gorgeous film with enough of Shinkai's style present to be alluring for fans. The pastel sunrises and sunsets are there, and the film looks absolutely stunning, even with the occasional moment in which he relies too much on 3D CG imagery. The story is engaging, if familiar, and the parts are well acted. Overall, the film is very good, it's just not very original.

The Disc:

This is our second review of a Sentai Filmworks project, and the result in this case is even better. The Blu-ray for Children Who Chase Lost Voices is stunning, the image quality is as perfect as you'd expect from this kind of digital animation, along the same lines as Ponyo. The disc presents Shinkai's bold color palette beautifully, with plenty of detail and gradation between the hues. The images are sharp and crisp, and detail is superb across the board. The audio tracks are also pretty stellar. I decided to do most of my viewing with the original Japanese track, and it is awesome, though my sampling of the English dub was very satisfactory as well. The DTS-HD MA 5.1 surround track leaves plenty of room for ambient sound, and actually uses itself more for that than action sequences, which is a nice change. No problems here.

Sentai Filmwork's bonus material for Children Who Chase Lost Voices is plentiful and mostly very engaging.  There is a feature length audio commentary with Shinkai in Japanese with optional English subtitles that is very subdued but informative. There is also a set of interviews with staff and cast that are pretty standard EPK fare. My favorite piece was the longish making of feature, which followed the film from concept through to commercial release and is very cool to watch. The filmmakers allowed quite a bit of access to everything from production meetings and concept art though voice acting and foley work. Very cool stuff to watch. My next favorite feature is a little promotional thing put together to show a little bit of each of Shinkai's features. All but one of his films is shown in something like trailer form, but the amazing part was seeing these films in HD, which I haven't yet. I did see 5 Centimeters Per Second at a festival screening, but I want my own copy on Blu-ray! I know that there have been rights issues with getting the producers to give up the HD version of the film, but man, seeing this few minutes of footage from that film makes me even more anxious.

Overall, Children Who Case Lost Voices is a pretty good anime if you can stop your brain from pointing out all of the Ghibli references for a few minutes. Sentai Filmworks Blu-ray presentation, on the other hand, is an unqualified success. I can't wait to see what they do with Ninja Scroll next month!
Special Features:
  • - Interview with Makoto Shinkai
    - The Making of Children Who Chase Lost Voices
    - Japanese Promo Video
    - Japanese Teasers
    - The Works of Makoto Shinkai
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