The Place Promised in Our Early Days is Shinkai Makoto’s first full length feature, and second widely distributed anime work. It is set in an alternate history, where Japan has been split into two – the mysterious Union controls Ezo (formerly Hokkaido), and the Allies control the south. Even from far away Tokyo, everyone can see a gigantic tower; it is said that the Union is somehow using this tower to develop a weapon. To three middle school kids, the tower is the object of their dreams. Fijusawa Hiroki and Shirakawa Takuya have been building a plane in secret so that they can one day cross the sea and reach the tower in Ezo. They befriend Sawatari Sayuri, who has had a crush on Hiroki for a while, and promise one day to go to the tower together. Before this can happen, Sayuri disappears suddenly, only to turn up later in a comatose state. The National Security Agency believes her dreams have something to do with the experiments the Union has been conducting around the tower, and before anyone can say anything, war is declared. Three years later, Hiroki leads his own life, but is haunted by dreams of Sayuri. It seems like she’s trying to tell him something, but he can’t quite piece it together. All he knows is that he has to fly to that tower, despite the impending war.
The story resembles that of Shinkai’s earlier work, Voices of a Distant Star. We are presented with a character drama against the backdrop of war – an emotional isolation and separation that seems to manifest itself in physical conflict. Although in Voices, Shinkai used conflict to motivate the drama, the role of politics in The Place Promised in Our Early Days is much more intrusive to the plot. ‘Unfortunately, none of it rings true, and these make up the weakest, most unnecesasry segments of the movie.
Shinkai’s realm, where he is at his best, is the realm of emotion, not political intrigue. Accordingly, the film assumes the most power when Shinkai explores the nuances of loneliness, love, and the connections that people make. These themes are shoved aside for a while as he begins to develop the war subplot. But that’s not really where you want to be, because he doesn’t reveal anything about war that is worthwhile or interesting. The middle act runs just a little too long, but Shinkai resumes the more interesting story thread for a solid last act.
When the film picks up again, the story takes a backseat to the characters, and that’s when the it becomes fun to watch again. Had Shinkai devoted his energy to making The Place Promised in Our Early Days shorter but more focused, he would truly have produced another masterpiece. In its current form, it’s wholly watchable, but requires a hefty attention span.
Except for Hiroki and Sayuri, much of the cast is bland. Takuya is given a marginal supporting role though he really should be a main character. After Sayuri disappears, he goes to work as a scientist for the NSA, trying to crack the secrets of the tower. Not much more development goes his way; there’s a minor conflict between him and Hiroki, but eventually, he sort of becomes “mission control” so that Hiroki can make his flight with the comatose Sayuri.
Many of the supporting characters only come in to advance a specific plot point, such as to explain the terrorist scheme or the relation between Sayuri and the tower. Then they fade away without much explanation. Sure, the writing here could have been more clever, but the problem wouldn’t exist in the first place had Shinkai simply kept to writing what he was good at.
Hiroki is a little more developed. He withdraws from his life after Sayuri disappears. He is a classical figure of loneliness, and his hope really comes from his dreams. We see a lot of Sayuri as well through her dreams. She’s also suffering from feelings of isolation, as she is constantly having visions of a desolate, abandoned world where she is the only living being. Together, the two convey the anxiety of their separation very effectively. The dream sequences, where you can almost see them reunite, are particularly well done. Like in Voices of a Distant Star, it really is extraordinary how much you can empathize with these characters if you’ve been in that kind of situation before (a long distance relationship after moving, for example).
Through the relationship between Hiroki and Sayuri, Shinkai accomplishes three things. First, he presents us with well-crafted, interesting characters that spur our interest in the film. Second, he successfully conveys the moods and emotions that are so critical to understanding his work. Lastly, as his work tends to be highly autobiographical, Shinkai helps us understand and appreciate who he is. And though the remaining cast is not so well off, the strength of those two are enough to compensate.
Shinkai fills The Place Promised in Our Early Days with a series of impressionistic moments. He uses colors, perspective, and the power of CGI to create some truly stunning backdrops. Despite its flaws in other areas, this is one incredibly beautiful anime, and is worth watching for that reason if nothing else. Shinkai has an uncanny knack for taking an ordinary setting, and then thoroughly transforming it by finding the perfect camera angle and saturating it with just the right colors. He is not an action director, and it shows in some of the later scenes. But the environments are so gorgeous and not-quite-real that you forgive him for the subdued action sequences.
There is an adequate voice cast, and they do a decent job with their material. The sound is clean, although the music seems too docile. I like the kind of mood it creates, but some scenes really call for the background music to jump out and crescendo. Instead, it stays relatively quiet and out of the way. These are just insignificant gripes – the result of my own critical mindset. As a technical production, The Place Promised in Our Early Days sets an entirely new standard of excellence.