Oftentimes compared to Studio Ghibli’s Hayao Miyazaki, Makoto Shinkai is among Japan’s most acclaimed anime directors. Although he isn’t a member of the popularly known studio, Shinkai produces films reminiscent of Ghibli’s—they’re generally wistful, thoughtful, and attentive to detail. At first glance, Shinkai’s 2004 film The Place Promised in Our Early Days certainly checks off all those boxes.
To me, the film actually has a more interesting premise than anything I’ve seen come out of Ghibli (not to say Ghibli premises are anywhere near uninteresting). The Place Promised in Our Early Days takes place in an alternate history where Japan has been divided along Cold War lines, with Hokkaido (renamed Ezo) going to the Soviet bloc and the rest of Japan falling under American influence. As both an alternate and Cold War history buff, I couldn’t help but to watch the movie.
Given my penchant for quirky kids and planes, other aspects of the plot also suited my fancy. The film’s protagonists are three middle school friends from Aomori (which is directly across the Strait of Tusgaru from Hokkaido); the two males, Hiroki Fujisawa and Takuya Shirakawa, are child prodigies, while Sayuri Sawatari is Fujisawa’s romantic interest. The three are bound with a shared fascination of the Hokkaido Tower, a mysterious edifice that looms from across the strait, so tall that it can be seen from Tokyo on a clear day. One day, Fujisawa and Shirakawa find a damaged drone and vow to convert it into a plane called the Bella Ciela. One day, the three promise each other, they will fly together on the Bella Ciela and visit the Tower.
After depicting these idyllic “early days”, the film jumps ahead three years to a decidedly less pleasant setting. The three friends are now separated. Fujisawa works as a physics in a government lab, Shirakawa goes to high school in Tokyo, and Sawatari has fallen into an unexplainable long-term sleep from which she cannot wake. The Tower becomes slightly less mysterious though: apparently it replaces the matter around it with matter from alternate universes. The scientists at Fujisawa’s lab aim to replicate the Tower’s effects, and also posit that dreams may have something to do with all these alternate universes. Whereas the first chunk of The Place Promised in Our Early Days is a wistful tale of childhood redolent of something like Shinichiro Watanabe’s anime show Kids on the Slope, this second act is more like Space Battleship Yamato or Inception. This shift comes entirely without warning, which is both jarring and intriguing.
“Jarring and intriguing” is an appropriate way to describe the movie’s story as a whole. Plot progression was logical, but felt unevenly paced. Exposition takes up most of the film while rising action builds rather slowly in the background. It isn’t until the last twenty minutes that anything heavily dramatic occurs, and both climax and falling action are squished hurriedly together; in fact, denouement literally happens during the movie’s end credits.
However, the film’s fascinating premise, alongside good execution in other areas, manage to redeem it quite well. What I loved the most was its subtle handling of Cold War themes. For instance, there are numerous shots with American aircraft carriers in the background—they are not directly involved with the plot, but their presence serves as a looming reminder of militarism and occupation, and perhaps connects to social anxieties relating to the continued US military presence on Japanese soil. Animation quality is also astoundingly good. One early scene occurs aboard a train, and watching the sunlight glint and glare as the train chugs on is simply breathtaking (take a look at some of these spoiler-free screenshots for more beautiful scenery from the film). Overall, details like these set a consistent and thoughtful mood across the film, helping to mitigate the plot’s jaggedness.
If it had more even storytelling, The Place Promised in Our Early Days would be an indisputable masterpiece of anime film. While it isn’t necessarily at that level, it is still an extremely strong piece, particularly for anyone whose particularly intrigued by its premise and amenable to its injections of Sci-Fi (which as a rabid Sci-Fi consumer I easily digested; this may not be true for everyone). I haven’t seen any of his other films, so I won’t go so far as to call Makoto Shinkai the “Next Miyazaki” at the moment; at the same time, I won’t contest anyone who does.
The Place Promised in Our Early Days (Japanese: 雲のむこう、約束の場所)—Japan. Directed by Makoto Shinkai. First released November 2004. Running time 1hr 30min. Voices by Hidetaka Yoshioka, Masato Hagiwara, and Yuuka Nanri.