Category: anime / In category: 7 of 10 / Overall: 78 of 100
Following his acclaimed short film ‘Voices of a Distant Star’ in 2002, Makoto Shinkai released his debut feature ‘The Place Promised in Our Early Days’ two years later. Picking up Best Animated Film at the Mainichi Film Awards and a Technical Excellence Award at the Tokyo International Anime Fair, the buzz was enough to earn him the sobriquet “the new Miyazaki”.
I almost feel sorry for him. You don’t inherit a mantle like that without having to brace yourself against an inevitable backlash. Imagine being called the new Scorsese, the new Cartier-Bresson, the new Iain Banks, the new [insert name of favourite artist in any medium] … you’re being asked to fill some pretty big shoes, as well as being freighted with the weight of an unreasonable expectation.
So how does ‘The Place Promised in Our Early Days’ measure up? Well, there’s a hint of Miyazaki in Shinkai’s obvious love of flight. There’s even, in the broadest strokes, an evocation of Miyazaki’s environmental concerns (although in Shinkai’s film the threat to the planet comes from something very different than the ravages mankind is inflicting on it). None of Miyazaki’s feminist sensibilities are in evidence, even though the heroine plays a major part. Another point of departure is Shinkai’s leaning towards sci-fi tropes whereas Miyazaki tends to embrace a more outright fantasy-based milieu.
There’s enough evidence, then, to make the comparison, but just as much to argue for an appraisal of Shinkai as an artist in his own right. And, with the caveat that the narrative doesn’t quite benefit from as much attention as the aesthetics and the structure is a tad fussy, it has to be said that ‘The Place Promised in Our Early Days’ is an assured, impressive and often achingly beautiful film.
Shinkai spends the first twenty minutes or so establishing the location, the characters and the backdrop of increasingly fraught international politics against which the rest of the film will play out. The setting is a divided Japan. The border between the Union and the Alliance (their political differences and the history and extent of the schism are somewhat foggy) falls near the Hokkaido (now renamed Eko) province. Our two protagonists, soon to be equally divided, are Hiroki and Takuya. Precociously talented students, they are obsessed with a nearby tower on the Union side: needle thin and seeming to reach the clouds, its purpose is a mystery. Hiroki and Takuya combine their technical knowledge, resources and funds and attempt to build a light aircraft which will carry them to the tower.
Given the natural order of things, you can’t be that age, that inseparable and that fixated on a project like building your own plane without a girl coming between you. Cue sensitive, violin-playing Sayuri who kindles romantic feelings in Hiroki but seems to form a platonic attachment to both of them. The boys get part-time work for a defence contractor whose business is increasing as political tensions mount. The US, frustrated in their attempts to inspect the mysterious tower, applies increasing pressure.
Thus far, Shinkai paints a poignant and slightly melancholy portrait of young adulthood poised on the loss of innocence and gives his protagonists the space to develop. Suddenly, though, the story leaps ahead three years and without a whisper of exposition we’re plunged into Takuya’s new lifestyle working as a military researcher trying to establish the role of the tower in the integration of a parallel universe into our world, matter from the parallel universe gradually expanding to “overwrite” the Earth. This sci-fi element is so abruptly incorporated that you almost seem to be watching a different film.
Meanwhile, Hiroki has moved to Tokyo to complete his education. Armed patrols are on the streets, tanks and materiel being moved on trains. Despondent and alone, he dreams of Saruyi. Then he discovers that, soon after he and Takuya parted company – leaving the aircraft unfinished – Sayuri fell into a coma which is in some way connected with the tower and the parallel universe; she is now being kept under observation at a military facility. Meanwhile Okabe, the boys’ old boss at the munitions factory, has joined an underground movement who plan to destroy the tower.
After the lethargically paced, character-driven first twenty minutes, it’s as if the narrative engages warp drive. The story breathlessly races from Eko to Toyko and back again, by way Sayuri’s dream world. The tone veers from downbeat romantic drama to high-concept sci-fi to resistance-themed war movie a la ‘Heroes of Telemark’. The climax, as the boys’ finally completed aircraft circles the tower on a life-or-death, everything-in-the-balance mission, comes on like ‘Porco Rosso’ reimagined by Douglas Sirk.
In many a movie, this degree of aesthetic schizophrenia would prove insurmountable. Yet somehow – somehow – Shinkai brings it all together. There are flaws, but overall the filmmakers’ vision is so persuasive and the quality of the animation so breathtakingly gorgeous that it doesn’t seem to matter. ‘The Place Promised in Our Early Days’ is a film to revisit, not for the characters or the story, but just to gaze at.