The Place Promised in Our Early Days Anime Review
Kumo no Mukou, Yakusoku no Basho
Beyond The Clouds, The Promised Place
US Release By
Alternate-present Sci-fi Drama
In an alternate timeline, Japan was divided after World War II, with the northernmost island of Hokkaido being annexed. Toward the end of the 20th century, a giant tower was constructed on the northern island, and while its purpose remains a mystery, tensions between North and South grow. In this environment, three high schoolers--two childhood friends working on a home-built plane to explore the mystery of the tower, and a girl that both of them fall in love with--make a promise. But time moves on and things change, and the project is left unfinished as the two boys follow opposite paths in life and the girl falls victim to a mysterious illness. When a series of inexplicable events bring the destinies of the three together again, there may be something deeper at stake than love, lost youth, and that fateful project to build an airplane.
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Vividly realized and astonishingly beautiful, The Place Promised in Our Early Days is a worthy sophomore effort and first full-length feature for independent anime creator Makoto Shinkai. A tight, focused work of art, it will not be to every viewer's taste, but it is difficult to find fault with as a visual and emotional feast. It is the sort of film that one runs out of synonyms for beautiful trying to describe. It captures a slightly altered present that is simultaneously so concrete and so surreally lovely it is hard to take your eyes off of it. The story and character development, while more anime-standard and at times a bit abstract, are sufficient to carry the work, but the all-important ending is deeply satisfying. More important to the film, however, is a melancholy yet pervasively romantic emotional knot that is its heart and entire purpose. Interwoven with gorgeous scenery and symbolic imagery, several moments so stunning they will make your spine tingle, and a reserved musical score, the film is nearly perfect in every technical aspect. Its only weakness is the Japanese acting; of the three leads, Hidetaka Yoshioka is a little stiff as Hiroshi, though Yuka Nanri's Sayuri is endearing.
The Place Promised in Our Early Days is a reserved, carefully crafted work of art that is so focused it won't appeal to all viewers, but if you appreciate understated romance or animation as an art form you simply must see it.
Full ReviewSwitch to Quick Review
Vividly realized and astonishingly beautiful, The Place Promised in Our Early Days is a worthy sophomore effort and first full-length feature for independent anime auteur Makoto Shinkai. A tight, focused work of art, it will not be to every viewer's taste, but it is difficult to find fault with as a visual and emotional feast.
Shinkai's three-act tale is a single-mindedly intricate painting about the melancholy of fading youth, the promise of deepening love, the search for purpose, and hope. Capturing this complex swirl of emotions is everything to the story. The political and sci-fi subplots are interesting enough to support the 90-minute length, but in the end are little more than a canvas on which to paint. While at times the dialogue and even action intentionally lean toward the abstract, don't worry about the part that counts--the climax is concrete and hugely satisfying.
The other central feature of The Place is its vivid beauty. Most striking are a handful of spine-tinglingly gorgeous moments, any one of which would be a tribute to any film. Going deeper, Shinkai's Japan is amazingly realized throughout. It is almost exactly like the real one, yet the outwardly ordinary locales are subtly imbued with astounding richness. Weather, light, color, and water pervade every scene. The ever-present signs of the seasons are a key tool used to set moods, and the contrast of natural beauty with artificial coldness reflects the emotions associated with the settings.
In an early sequence, lush grass, mirror-like ponds, and glowing light turn the decay of an abandoned train station into an almost magical and astonishingly beautiful place. Later, this is contrasted with the harsh, blue light of research labs and the oppressive grays of cities, and the icy winter of the climactic scenes.
Throughout, both subtly and not, surreally warm sunlight and water in all its forms evoke or directly represent innocence, romance, and hope. In Sayuri's prison of dreams, for example, water mirrors her growing connection to reality--first nothing but distant clouds, then snow, then a puddle, and finally crystal-clear ponds.
Water is everywhere--reflections, rain, snow, ice, steam, and even clouds of breath all feature prominently in the visual and symbolic palette. In fact, there are only a handful of scenes that don't contain water in some form.
The disrepair of the tools of everyday life is also something of a more subtle ongoing theme; several scenes visually emphasize rusting metal and time-worn buildings. This isn't an unusual sight in the Japanese countryside, but interestingly the images are often warmly lit and rendered so exquisitely that they are almost pretty. Intentional or not, it evokes the quiet-life nostalgia of lived-in places.
The rest of the visuals are somewhat more traditional, but still of high quality. The art is uniformly top-notch, and the character designs understated and distinctive. Most of the technology is carefully realistic, but there's also a bit of fanciful mechanical design--the hand-built plane around which the plot revolves is more like a sculpture of crisp arcs than something realistically aerodynamic. There is little action, but the bits that do appear are slick and appropriately brutal, filmed in a shaky, camera-in-the-action style.
This seems a good moment to mention The Place's passing similarity to Gainax's maiden film Wings of Honneamise--mostly in ambition and low-key sense of adventure, but also specific juxtaposition of first flight and brutal war at the climax. The similarity is additionally interesting because Shinkai's acclaimed solo production Voices of a Distant Star draws so heavily on Gainax's Gunbuster, though I wouldn't read too much into that connection.
Comparing The Place Promised In Our Early Days to Voices of a Distant Star is interesting because the stories are completely different, yet they are essentially the same film. The rich visual language is nearly identical, as is the pervading sense of romantic melancholy and fading innocence. Both films have as their ultimate essence the same sort of singular, densely emotional, shared moment of loss, romance, and hope. Both even feature a shot of a stag watching the protagonists fly overhead as part of their respective climaxes.
Contrasting with Voices, however, The Place has the runtime and budget to offer a full backstory, more developed characters, and even more beautiful visuals. Shinkai lets none of these go to waste, although the focus of the story is every bit as unwavering. Most impressive to me is the setting, a late-1990s Japan that might have been were the country not such a peaceful place. Reminiscent of South Korea with its mysterious and dangerous neighbor to the north, this alternate Japan is a well-realized place threatened by war but not yet directly tainted by it.
Lending a particularly interesting air of realism to this world, the what, how, and why of the northern island's split from the rest of the nation and the escalating tensions between them are never fully explained. Instead, we learn about the alternate history from snippets of news broadcasts and implications in conversations. The story is well underway before the viewer has any idea what is going on, and the characters never step back to explain more than comes naturally. Though perhaps a bit unsatisfying for those who prefer involved political drama, this world evokes enough of a sense of realism and depth to give the plot a solid foundation without ever getting in its way.
The sci-fi end of the plot does its job, but that's all the credit I'm willing to give. The sci-fi framework is specifically crafted to support the emotional drama, and it shows--while no more preposterous than many anime series, it is rather abstract and contrived in contrast to the film's political subplot and layered emotion. Still, exposition and techno-babble are kept to a minimum, and glossing over the specifics works to keep the rather random science out of the way. That it is set in an alternate world also helped soothe my scientific annoyance, at least enough that it didn't interfere with the purpose of the piece.
The Japanese cast is largely made up of unknowns, but generally does a sufficient job of giving life and depth to the small collection of interesting characters. The standout is Yuka Nanri as Sayuri (best known for Henrietta from Gunslinger Girl)--a believably pleasant teenager, she captures both the endearing innocence and lonely sadness of the character. Hidetaka Yoshioka and Masato Hagiwara voice the two male leads who, while usually dispassionate (almost annoyingly so), have enough moments of levity to keep them interesting as people. My one complaint is Yoshioka's Hiroshi--he sounds like he's trying far too hard to sound detached, and is noticeably stiff in a way I'm not willing to write off as awkward youth.
There is very little music--everyday sounds make up the majority of the quiet aural backdrop. There is, however, a pleasant violin piece that features prominently in the story, and what background music there is is similarly simple, unobtrusive, and pretty. The end theme is a quiet, nostalgic, pleasantly romantic song.
In summary, The Place Promised in Our Early Days is the sort of film that one runs out of synonyms for beautiful trying to describe. It captures a slightly altered present that is simultaneously so concrete and so surreally lovely it is hard to take your eyes off of it. The story and character development, while more anime-standard, are sufficient to carry the work, but it is a melancholy yet pervasively romantic emotional knot that is the heart and entire purpose of the film. It is a reserved, carefully crafted work of art that is so focused it won't appeal to all viewers, but if you appreciate understated romance or animation as an art form you simply must see it.
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As mentioned, Shinkai's Voices of a Distant Star is nearly identical in mood and structure, even if it is drastically different in storyline, and Royal Space Force: Wings of Honneamise bears some similarities as well in the sense of low-key adventure and the strength of romance in the face of reality.
Notes and Trivia
There is a manga adaptation by Mizu Sahara, but it is based on the movie, not vice versa.
Note that, as with Shinkai's other works, the title has both an English and Japanese version, which are both poetic but somewhat different. This is something like Ghost in the Shell, most Ghibli films, and a few other anime with dual-language alternate titles.
US DVD Review
ADV's impressive DVD features Dolby 5.1 audio in both Japanese and English, an accurate subtitle track, and gorgeous anamorphic widescreen video--crisp, rich, and as pristine as the film deserves. Extras include interviews with the Japanese cast and director and the original Japanese trailer. It comes in a very pretty package, too.
Although there are moments of moderately harsh violence, they are sparse and brief; ADV appropriately called it PG-TV, which I would say translates into a 10-up, although a couple of violent bits might push it to 13-up depending on your standards.
Violence: 2 - The violence is sparse, but harsh and unsparing when it does occur.
Nudity: 0 - Nothing.
Sex/Mature Themes: 0 - Although the theme is introspective and mature, the romance is of the purest sort.
Language: 1 - Little of note in the subtitles.
Available in North America from ADV Films on bilingual DVD. The DVD is also available in a two-pack along with Voices of a Distant Star as "The Shinkai Collection"; this version also includes the soundtrack of Voices on a separate CD and a fancy booklet with artwork and interviews.