In his beautiful if sometimes convoluted first feature, Makoto Shinkai shows the early rumblings of an artist who would become a first-rate anime director.
Dir. Makoto Shinkai & Yoshio Suzuki
2004 | Japan | Animation/Drama/Romance | 91 mins | 1.85:1 | Japanese
PG (passed clean)
Cast: Hidetaka Yoshioka, Masato Hagiwara, Yuka Nanri
Plot: In an alternate postwar timeline, Japan is divided into the Union-controlled North and the US-controlled South.
Source: CoMix Wave
Subject Matter: Moderate
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex
Audience Type: Slightly Mainstream
(Reviewed on DVD – first published 31 Oct 2017)
In his first feature film, Makoto Shinkai showed the early rumblings of an artist bursting with talent. That was in 2004. Move forward to 2017, and on the back of his greatest success, the 2016 anime hit, Your Name, Shinkai has surely established himself as one of his country’s finest anime directors.
Yet, revisiting his works, and in this case the telemovie, The Place Promised in Our Early Days, one could find traces of his style already fully-fleshed.
With an eye for incredible detail and a penchant for beautifying his shots with lighting effects (e.g. lens flare), it is impossible to deny the irresistible visuals that he conjures up, be it the serenity and calmness of silences, or the quick transition cuts that he regularly employs to suggest experiences or emotions as melancholically ephemeral.
The story—quite typical of Shinkai’s preoccupation with themes of romance and destiny set against some irreversible cosmic intervention or dreamscapes as realities—centers on two schoolboys and a girl who make a pact that one day they would fly in a custom-made plane to a mysterious tower across the border.
The girl disappears one day, and three years pass by, with the two boys going on their separate paths. The setting is an alternate post-WWII universe where Japan is divided into (Soviet) Union-controlled North and US-led South.
“Now, those days are long gone… Our promised place was beyond those clouds.”
The spectre of a past war—and the threat of a future war—provide temporal context to the storytelling, which despite its best intentions, sometimes feels way too convoluted to make sense.
The intercutting between different realities and spaces echoes the film’s later-half fixation with technology, metaphysics and parallel universes—Shinkai would further develop this conceptually, and with greater ambition, in Your Name.
While the way the story is told is imperfect, one can’t really fault the director’s clear-eyed focus in creating the arc of his three main characters purely from a relational dynamic standpoint.
Amid the flurry of politics and technological one-upmanship that are part of the film’s exposition, what shines through is Shinkai’s love for his characters—their hopes, dreams and fears—and how they relate to each other.
Some of the film’s most exquisite moments are in the first half, where sweet innocence and blissful infatuation become emblematic of a simpler, uncomplicated time, where promises seem to mean something.