The obvious criticism levied against him is that he borrows too heavily from Miyazaki. Which in his latest film, Children Who Chase Lost Voices from Deep Below, is somewhat true, but also short sighted. For Miyazaki himself is not innocent of drawing a bit too deeply from the wellspring of our collected aesthetic consciousness.
Like any other ambitious animator, Miyazaki started as a lowly grunt and worked his way up from thankless in-betweens, to key frame animation, character designer, and beyond. Along the way his aesthetic sense would be massaged by the senior staff and house style of the studio.
Ganba's Adventure (1975)
Nishimura Takayo, character designer and 2D animation director for Children, trained under Kabashima Yoshio, a contemporary of Miyazaki during his time at Toei Animation. Through the 70’s both men would be influenced by World Masterpiece Theater series, which adapted classic tales as family-oriented anime. Kobashima countered what he felt were stale retreads with original stories such as Ganba’s Adventure; Miyazaki would work on the Japanese retelling of Anne of Greene Gables before leaving Nippon Animation.
Anne of Green Gables (1979)
Shinkai has stated that the style of Children aims to emulate World Masterpiece Theater (fitting, given the 70’s setting), meaning that if the results look like Miyazaki, it’s because they’re drawing from the same inspirations. The same talent pool, as well. Many of the artists on the film, including background matte painters, have a history with Studio Ghibli. When you’re enlisting the same cooks with the same ingredients, it's inevitable that tastes blend. It all boils down to how your house tweaks the recipe.
Miyazaki built his career on parables of man vs. nature, progress vs. tradition, haves vs. have-nots. In contrast to this bevy of social messages, Shinkai comes off as introverted to the point of self-centeredness. Shinkai is primarily concerned with the distance between people, either the physical or mental, and the drama created in closing that gap. At the end of the day he doesn’t care if you’re a proletariat or bourgeoisie, so long as you’ve learned to love yourself.
Magical gemstones, luddite nostalgism, a young girl protagonist thrown out of her element in a fantastic world—All tropes Miyazaki has claimed a monopoly over out of repetition. Let’s be realistic—Even Miyazaki is aping his own style by this point.
Still, Shinkai declares his love for Laputa, perhaps a bit too loudly. But this is to overcompensate for his first nerd-crush that inspired him to join the industry: The PC-88 intro to Falcom’s action RPG, Y’s II.
Y's II Eternal (2001)
Here we see overlapping themes—Girl meets boy from another world, high fantasy and flying islands, mystical necklaces. Years later Shinkai would be given the opportunity to create the cinematics for the Windows remake where we see his lo-fi upbringing pushed to its artistic limits.
Speaking of borrowing from what you love, steampunk didn’t exactly originate in Japan, and girls were adventuring in Wonderland long before Chihiro. If you want to say that Shinkai’s films sprouted from Miyazaki’s, I’ll give you that. But you have to realize that Miyazaki’s world is firmly rooted in the works of another, the manga artist Morohoshi Daijiro.
Without any titles available on English, Morohoshi’s presence may not be obvious to western audiences. Following his 1970 debut in COM he quickly became the poster boy for manga connoisseurs, lauded by critics but only mildly successful in commercial magazines. Miyazaki is on record stating that Morohoshi's detailed yet lumpy line work inspired the sketchy penciling in the Nausicca manga. Dig deeper into Morohoshi’s themes and it becomes apparent that the director cribbed more than just his style.
Mud Men, based around creation myths of the eponymous tribe from Papa New Guinea and what happens when greedy outsiders anger the indigenous forest spirits, plays out like a gender-flopped version of Princess Mononoke.
Morohoshi is famous for weaving folklore into the every day, another technique unfairly attributed as a Miyazaki-ism. This influence is clearly present in Children as well. With Agartha, Shinkai attempts to tie world mythology together with a common thread that runs through underworld legends, while at the same time verifying them through the pseudo-science hollow earth theory.
At an earlier point down the same narrative vector, we have Morohoshi’s Dark Legend of Confucius, which connects the Brahmins of India, five element theory of China, and the historic first peoples of Japan through Ying-Yang dualism as a universal binary code that can be deciphered by analyzing the Analects of, you guessed it—Confucius.
Miyazaki builds new worlds of high fantasy from low technology. Shinkai and Morohoshi build upon existing worlds with high theological concepts.
I can't find my copy of Dark Legend to scan, so here's a clay model of the Jomon guardian spirit. (Source)
There’s also the striking visuals of Agartha. The terracotta structures populating the underground world are adorned with organic line work reminiscent of motifs from Japan’s pre-historic Jomon period. Once again, Morohoshi beat him to the punch by several decades with Ankoku Shinwa, or Dark Legend (no relation to Confucius this time), where Haniwa sculptures with Jomon patterns serve as the key to opening the forbidden lands underneath Kofun burial mounds. Not a glowing gemstone per se, though still a McGuffin cut from the same bedrock.
Nightgaunt by Rob Thomas
Traveling through an underground gate with a mythical key to usurp forbidden knowledge from the center of creation, all the while being pursued by faceless demons once the sun sets—Suddenly, Children sounds less like Laputa and more like Lovecraft’s The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath. Just swap in Randolph Carter, the silver key, Nightgaunts, and the Plateau of Leng! You've already got the guardian cats and moon barges.
You can draw an unbroken line of influence from Shinkai to Miyazaki to Morohoshi to Lovecraft, and continue it onward to Lord Dunsany’s dream fiction and beyond should you be ambitious enough. My point—I don’t want to see Miyazaki become to anime what Tezuka is to manga: Omnipresent, over quoted, and unchallenged. Both artists are geniuses, but their image has grown to such titanic proportions that we overlook the giants whose shoulders they stand on.
If you want to criticize Children for being derivative, you should, because it is, but please keep in mind that the source material is also derivative in its own ways. The film has more pressing issues, such as the motiveless protagonist, visually striking though otherwise unmotivated journey across Agartha, and ending theme that is horrifically sincere in a way that only singer-songwriters can manage.
Despite some whiffs in the characterization and pacing, Children is still worth seeing, if just to track the growth of one of anime’s most interesting talents. Just leave your Ghibli bias at the door, as counter-intuitive it may feel at first.