In my last three Anime Review posts, I looked at works created by acclaimed director Makoto Shinkai, known by some as the second Hayao Miyazaki for his charmingly sentimental works released throughout the past decade. One thing they share in common is the same trope featuring a friendship later blossoming to a romance between an adolescent boy and girl, and maybe some supernatural powers thrown into the mix just for fun. However, not all of his works share this property: if you look back at some of his pre-Your Name works, you’ll find plenty that tried to play off a unique scenario and distinguish itself from the other. One of these, The Place Promised In Our Early Days, is an example of such.
THE PLACE PROMISED IN OUR EARLY DAYS
This film, released in 2004 during the dark autumn months of the *gasp* second NHL lockout, is known as Kumo no Muko, Yakusoku no Basho in Japan, or “Beyond The Clouds, The Promised Place”. It is the first feature-length film directed by Makoto Shinkai himself, right after his 2002 OVA Voices From A Distant Star. From here, you know the drill – film was animated by Comix Wave Films, and it has been the recipient of awards such as Best Animated Feature at the year’s Mainichi Film Awards and a silver medal at the Fantasia Film Festival in Montreal, Canada. Unlike his more recent works, while it does feature a romance of sorts, it does not make it the main focus of the story, preferring to focus on the lives of our main characters, and the story takes up a more sci-fi theme rather than an entirely supernatural theme focusing around the world of aviation.
This film finds itself, among with many of Shinkai’s earlier works, as extremely overshadowed by his recent successes, and unless if you’ve been acquainted with his pre-Your Name works, I doubt this film will ring a bell. I know in my experience a trip to Wikipedia was how I got acquainted with it, and I must say, I found this a pretty cool look at the inner machinations of the mind of an up-and-coming director whose talents would land him a jackpot a decade later.
Starting in the year 1996, when the errors of Communism were still alive and well in the form of the Soviet Union who never dissolved in this timeline, and has occupied the island of Hokkaido for the last 22 years (possibly as revenge for the Russo-Japanese wars nine decades ago?). After colonizing it, a large tower that literally pierces the skies was constructed, a feat which amazes, and is reviled by many as a symbol of Soviet technological hegemony. Two boys named Hiroki and Takuya are part of the former group, and hope one day to be able to get close to it and see what exactly it does. To do this, they obtain work at the aviation workshop of a man named Okabe to get supplies to build a plane, which they call the Bella Ciela (“beautiful sky”) that can accomplish this, with his support and brief tutelage. Work on their project progresses steadily over the next few weeks of their summer break, and they are heavily optimistic about their ambitions – except for one little detail.
Enter Sayuri, their female childhood friend, who joins them at their hideout and accompanies them in their every journeys. Although not as technically savvy as Takuya or a mechanical whiz like Hiroki, she makes up for it with her cheerful, pleasant presence which uplifts the boys throughout their toil, and lends them to develop feelings for her. Together, they make a promise to one day fly that plane and see the majestic tower for themselves. Unbeknownst to them, she suffers from a rare condition of narcolepsy which causes her to fall into a coma, and get visions of another world. As soon as she succumbs to this, she is sucked into a black-and-white seemingly post-apocalyptic world where she is the only inhabitant. The two boys, unable to cope with the grief surrounding her disappearance, become incapable of fulfilling the project and their promise, and split paths. Hiroki moves to Tokyo and lives a depressing, isolated life, frequently haunted by the sight of the Hokkaido tower as a memory of Sayuri, and Takuya earns a post at an American military facility as a physicist studying the realm of alternate worlds under the supervision of his supervisor Maki, who has a crush on him.
Three years later, Hiroki and Takuya finally reunite and relive their childhood memories and catch up on their lives since; however, during a visit to their old workshop, where the Bella Ciela lies unfinished, he is aghast when he is told by the latter to forget about it, and is threatened at gunpoint by his former friend to grow up and choose between saving Sayuri or the world. Despite this, he encounters a change of heart after learning about the tower’s purpose as some sort of landscape-stabilizer, its connection to Sayuri’s coma, and his growing involvement with a Japanese nationalist cause (led by his boss Okabe) to liberate Hokkaido from Soviet control. He finally gets his act together, frees Sayuri, flees the tower, cuts all connection with his co-workers, and rekindles his friendship with Hiroki to finish what they started all those years ago.
They finish their plane several weeks later, mere hours before the start of a war between Japan and the Soviet Union over Hokkaido. Hiroki plans to fly the plane amidst the chaos, hoping that it could awaken Sayuri, and Takuya gifts the plane with a missile to destroy the tower and reverse its mind-bending effects. These he does successfully; Sayuri regains her consciousness and sees Hiroki for the first time in three years, where they vow to rekindle their lost years together, and the tower is destroyed, much to the delight of Takuya and Mr. Okabe.
WHAT I LIKED
- It was nice to see an anime with visuals that were different than most modern anime series like Hyouka or Konosuba whose animation are almost similar to each other. I really don’t know how to describe it other than that they seem like something with an early 2000’s retro feel to them, but it does evoke reminders of another work of his, 5 Centimeters Per Second.
- Don’t get me wrong, this film gets very depressing at times, and one of the ways it does this is through the contrasts between the first and second halves of the film. We start with a happy childhood between Hiroki, Sayuri and Takuya, doing the things they loved and frolicking in the beautiful summer of 1996: a time when, in their eyes, “life was good”. Then shift to three years later, with Hiroki and Sayuri’s sequences which I almost imagine are parallel to each other. Whereas Sayuri is alone in a desolate world void of human interaction for the last three years, Hiroki’s situation is the opposite: living amongst the bustling city of Tokyo, yet voluntarily choosing to be alone and deprive himself of social connection, speaks volumes to how important it is for us to want to have such friendships in our lives. Especially now during the winter months and at a time when things like fun and social gatherings are outlawed, it was something that I could resonate with, and feel the pain shared by the characters.
- For all its flaws, the film at least managed to tie all loose ends with regards to the plot by the time it ends, such as the whole shtick regarding the tower, alternate dimensions, and the plane’s completion. At least they managed to keep true to one plot and find a way to finish it, even if the execution was a little bit hasty and tacky.
- I’m very glad that this film, despite incorporating some wild theories about alternate dimensions, did not use it for something cheesy like “predicting the future”. I feared that we were going to get another poorly-shoehorned sequence where time travel would be involved somehow, and after watching how everything played out, I was sort of relieved this was left out – otherwise I would have just quit the film, and stared for a long time at the mirror, contemplating my life choices.
WHAT I DISLIKED
- One of the weakest points of this series was the voice acting: to me it appeared very bland throughout. Each characters’ intonation of dialogue was devoid of emotion (for example, Hiroki trying to save Sayuri who is dangling atop a bridge, or when Takuya threatens Hiroki) and it almost felt like they were too scared to raise their voices even one bit. What’s the point of telling a story if you’re not going to put some life into it?
- I really don’t get what’s Shinkai’s fascination with time-skips in his early works. So much potential was lost thanks to this lazy writing – such as when/where/how did Sayuri disappear; what caused Takuya and Hiroki, and how they drifted apart, and eventually lost contact. This doesn’t work especially considering that it makes the transition from the first half to the next abrupt, extremely forced, and at times awkward: for example the scene where Takuya pulls a gun on his (former) friend made absolutely no sense since nothing was made clear about what their relationship was like during that frame. Again, I can’t stress this enough: show, don’t tell, otherwise you’ll lose your viewers’ captivating interest.
- Another weird thing from this film was the seeming lack of Soviet characters in the film, despite the fact that they have a significant presence in northern Japan. For a country that managed to outlive its IRL counterpart by some eight years or so, and managed to troll a neighboring nation by building an expensive world-manipulating tower, they’re quite absent and don’t make much of an impact in this film. Perhaps their military successes in Japan and prolonged survival are thanks to the non-existence of a certain Pope John Paul II in this timeline?
Sayuri, Hiroki and Takuya, the film’s protagonistic trio, are the main focus of The Place Promised In Our Early Days, and much like Shinkai’s other pieces, they’re as simple and one-dimensional as they can be. Well, character development has not really been something that Shinkai’s works pride themselves on, as opposed to being chess pieces moving the story forward, but this one finds a way to incorporate it, albeit choppily, during the timeskip. While Hiroki gets some minor development as to how he changed in the wake of Sayuri’s disappearance, and I’m glad that romance wasn’t a theme too uplifted in this story, I felt that this was a missed opportunity to get a better look as to how the characters’ relationships developed in between that time as opposed to jump-cutting to the next phases in their lives.
Supporting characters such as Takuya’s co-worker, Maki, and his friend Okabe, on the other hand, I can give a pass in terms of their roles – they literally took the name “supporting character” seriously by acting as mentors/surrogates to the main characters, assisting in their growth and influencing the choices they would make, that by the time the film ended, everything seemed to wrap up without any loose ends remaining. Okabe’s background was interesting, since he’s the member of a Japanese nationalist group hellbent on expelling the Communists from his home nation, and is something that would have been interesting to look at more in the story.
There were some bright and dark spots to the music of the movie, such as its ambient background OST, but to be frank the movie did not put a lot of emphasis on it to drive the tale. However, when it shines, it shines – such as the case with Sayuri’s Melody, depicted below. If there’s one piece that best defines this film, it’s this one. This violin piece is a hopeful, relaxing tune which plays out like a lullaby, and not only evokes overtones surrounding Sayuri’s childlike, innocent demeanor, but also that a longing desire to achieve something. Vocally, Kimi No Koe by Ai Kawashima is there to serenade the viewer through the last few minutes of Sayuri’s isolation and her return to reality; I’m honestly reminded about Japanese school songs just by listening to this song. It’s alright, but a tad bit short when it comes to my tastes.
Favorite character: I found it difficult to pick one character that I liked the most for this film, because of how relatively uninteresting they were to each other. But I guess I’ll have to stick with Hiroki for this one for his loyal, “We can do it” attitude.
Favorite scene: The scene where Sayuri is first introduced to the plane, and the time they would spend after would definitely make its mark as my favorite moment in this series. Watching these bits, taken under the bright, wistful atmosphere and contrasting it to the mostly dark, gloomy ones within the second half was something that the film did excellently on.
Favorite quote: I think we can all find ways to relate to Hiroki, who reflects on the mutability and immutability of certain things, after making a promise to reach the Hokkaido Tower one day:
Even though the world – no, history was changing, but some things – the smells of the night wafting into the train, my friends, and Sayuri’s insatiable presence within the air – were enough to mean the world to me.Hiroki reflects on the beautiful summer of ’96
Hearing this made me think a throwback to St. James 4:15, “For what is your life? It is a vapour which appeareth for a little while, and afterwards shall vanish away. For that you should say: If the Lord will, and if we shall live, we will do this or that.” I think for us, these quotes are an important reminder that no matter how unstable life may seem (especially during the dark winter months, plus a time when fun/social gatherings are outlawed), always find something or someone to find comfort in, and make the day bearable.
The Place Promised In Our Early Days was a huge step that influenced how Makoto Shinkai’s works would play out in later years, with its savvy use of character relationships, sci-fi/supernatural elements and lifelike worlds coming into play. Seeing this film was a pretty good insight to how the director’s mind worked, what his interests were, and it’s enough to give me a good background as to why he makes the type of films he makes, as well as the characters he writes. I’d say it’s worth a watch especially if you like aviation or linear plots; not too shabby for a first start.
Note: Just to let you know, my next Anime Review will be the last (for now) in which I review one of Makoto Shinkai’s works.