You must respect the circle of life. This is something that everyone who was raised on The Lion King is familiar with, and yet, one thing that has fascinated people for centuries is changing, interrupting, or influencing that cycle: embalming, funerals, death celebrations, ideas about heaven and hell, Dante’s Inferno, vampires, zombies, Frankenstein, and other fantasy and science fiction works. Death is the one thing that we can always depend on.
Once someone is dead, they are not meant to return to living, and yet, the five stages of grief include bargaining: “Take me instead!” But it’s too late once someone is already dead unless… we are no longer talking about reality.
Children Who Chase Lost Voices is about a little girl who has lost a parent at a very young age, far too young to really understand what “gone to a better place” actually means. It has always been difficult to explain death to children. Adults have invented this coping method (by sending the dead on a permanent vacation) to make the reality that their loved ones are never coming back easier to accept (the 5th stage of grief). But ever since she lost her father, she hasn’t been quite the same. She still attends school with other children, but she also spends a lot of time accompanied solely by a little, orange cat, straddling a picturesque hill, and listening to a little radio that her father left behind.
After being saved from a mysterious beast while roaming alone, Asuna quickly bonds with her rescuer who is also mysterious in his own way. He becomes a quick cure for Asuna’s loneliness, spending lots of time with her listening to her father’s little radio. But, unbeknownst to her, this is a special radio and she has been listening to voices from the underworld. When her savior disappears, Asuna slips back into her solitude, being unable to find him anywhere.
Asuna soon learns that not everyone can recover from a hard loss when she meets her substitute teacher who has lost his wife to a terminal disease. He has since dedicated his entire life to finding a way to bring her back from the dead. In a lucky twist of fate, Asuna owns a piece of clavis (magical key to the underworld) that people looking to get into the underworld come to take from her.
We soon realize how dedicated the teacher is to his lost wife and that even after all the years since her passing, he has not lived due to his obsession with retrieving her from the underworld. In an interesting twist, this teacher takes on the role of reluctant parent as he is unable to shake Asuna’s company as they journey into the underworld, Agartha.
Asuna, very grown up and responsible for her age, also becomes a caretaker of the teacher, scavenging food and cooking their meals and keeping their clothes washed. The teacher has not had someone take care of him since his wife’s death.
Naturally, no child can go on an epic adventure without his or her pet, so, Mimi has accompanied Asuna. As it turns out, the adorable little Mimi is actually from this beautiful underworld and has been watching over Asuna for a long time. Having finished her job (being a friend to a lonely girl going through a hard time who needs support), Mimi dies. In a very visual representation of the circle of life, Mimi’s body is absorbed by a mystic Quetzacoatl, a keeper of the dead, known for being guides to humankind in the beginning of humans’ creation.
As the action continues to build, those who are coming after Asuna to cleave an important key to the underworld from her possession, her new protector, brother to her first rescuer saves Asuna and helps her on her journey to be reunited with her grieving substitute teacher (who has not yet found his wife).
*Side note: Super bloody animated movies are always somewhat shocking to me because of the sense of innocence being corrupted by the reality of death. I have no idea why my brain still equates animated movies with children’s movies, but, that’s how I feel.
Some people will make great sacrifices for love. How do I know? Because of the complete savagery of the substitute teacher who must offer up a living body as the host for his wife’s spirit. Unfortunately for her, Asuna picks this moment to reunite with the teacher, who, despite whatever affection he had developed for Asuna, is still determined to bring his wife back at whatever cost and volunteers Asuna for sacrifice. Because bringing someone back from the dead is no small gift, one of the teacher’s eyes is also ripped from its socket to join the other eyeballs on the great creature who puts his wife’s spirit into Asuna’s body.
Still acting as her protector, Shin swoops in with his powerful sword to destroy the clavis and release Asuna’s body from its possessing spirit. Of course, the teacher gets uber pissed because he has gone through a hell of a lot to find his wife in this underworld and has given up half of his sight as payment.
In the end, Shin, now an outcast from the underworld due to his refusal to harm Asuna, joins the teacher and Asuna, who becomes a sort of adopted daughter and caretaker for the teacher. All three of them have lost someone (Shin’s brother, the original protector didn’t “disappear”). Sometimes the best way to cope is to grieve with someone who is also grieving.
During this final scene, you can see that the teacher has finally reached the “acceptance” stage of the cycle of grief. He has completed his quest to bring his wife back, even though, technically, he failed since he didn’t get to keep her, but at best, the ending is ambiguous. Because, even though he no longer has his wife, he has passed the anger and bargaining stages of grieving. Asuna now has two new people to keep her company who are father and brother figures.
A couple of things I have gathered about helping children through the grieving process are:
- Visualization. Asuna’s journey to the beautiful and majestic underworld where she has been told her father (and all the dead) have gone gives her a more concrete idea of the “better place”. I believe her experience in Agartha has brought her peace because she has now seen that the place her father has gone is actually better. How do you apply this to your own children? With art therapy. Having children draw heaven and include all of the things they think their lost loved ones would want in the afterlife. Is heaven a big castle made out of clouds where everyone drinks beer all day? Or is it a place where fathers have a mile high flat-screen TV and customized chairs and watch football all day?
- Friendship and Family. Having someone who relates to their loss and can tell stories about their own (or shared) loved ones. People who fill the voids left by the dead. Mother and father figures, a family friend who knows how to make those peanut butter cookies your aunt used to make, an aunt who loves sewing like your seamstress mother.
- Remember and reminisce. Continuing life as if the dead had never lived is not good for the grieving process. Asuna (although a fictional character), became a lot less sullen as she opened up and shared what she remembered about her father. Don’t let your children suffer alone. If someone used to take them to the zoo every Tuesday, take them to the zoo and brush up on your animal knowledge. Visit the gravestones and bring more than flowers. Did your mom love Gigi’s cupcakes? Bring a little ceramic cupcake to leave with your mom. Did your sister love dolphins? Bring a stuffed dolphin o a laminated photo (so that it will last longer). Hold your lost ones in your hearts. Let your children know that gone does not mean forgotten.
I leave you with a few more things to think about:
- If it were possible to bring people back from the dead, would you? What are you willing to sacrifice for your lost loved ones?
- What do you do to honor your lost loved ones?
- Do you believe in an afterlife? If so, what do you think awaits us?