The Place Promised in Our Early Days

In terms of US anime releases, 2005 has been a year of big names and mediocre accomplishments. We've seen the return of Katsuhiro Otomo and Hayao Miyazaki, and both delivered enjoyable films...but in comparison to their earlier works, their recent movies are disappointing. Who can't say that the new version of Appleseed is better than its miserable OVA predecessor? And yet, it still has problems, especially for fans of the manga. Entertaining? Sure, but far from perfect. However, I'm glad to say that the streak is broken. Friends, forget Steamboy. Forget Howl's Moving Castle. Forget Appleseed. The best US anime release of 2005 is The Place Promised In Our Early Days. It's not just the best anime I've seen this year, it's the best film I've seen this year. And it just may be one of the best anime I've seen, period.

The story is set in an alternate timeline where Japan has split into two factions, apparently divided after WWII. Far in the distance of the Union, planted in what used to be called Hokkaido, can be seen a gigantic tower streaming leagues into the sky. Its enormity can even been seen in Tokyo on a clear day. But what is the tower for? No one seems to know.

Enter Hiroki and Tayuka, a couple of 9th grade boys with a dream. They plan to build an aircraft of their own to fly into Union airspace and check out the tower for themselves. All is going well when the friendly Sayuri joins their group. She's a sweet girl, and the three of them become fast friends. But one day, Sayuri disappears. Despite their best efforts, the two cannot find her, and their dream fades. Building on the plane stops. But three years later, Hiroki learns a secret about Sayuri that may link them all together in a bond with the mysterious tower that none of them could have imagined.

The Place Promised In Our Early Days is one of those rare works that is an art film with an engaging plot. Writer and director Makoto Shinkai, who brought us the astounding Voices of a Distant Star, has proven that his first effort was not a fluke. Unlike virtually every anime I've seen, Shinkai frames his shots so that we are not constantly on top of the characters. Instead, he enjoys medium and long-range shots where we can see the characters but not observe their faces. At times, he wants to point out the lyrical sound of his subjects' voices. Though the film is dialogue driven, we are not stuck watching a bunch of talking heads. Shinkai is interested in each picture setting a mood, and it works.

The Place... is not a strongly animated feature in the sense of movement. Shinkai's characters move perfectly well, but the film is rarely concerned with action, and so the movement we see is all naturally a part of each shot. But this is not frustrating in the least, for Shinkai provides backdrops that seem to have dropped right from paradise into the show. The beauty of it is occasionally overwhelming. Not every moment is there to make you go "ah," but many do.

It's clear to me that The Place... owes at least some credit to Wings of Honneamise, which is an incredible film to be in debt to, in my opinion. There are several links between the two, from the detailed artwork that shows obvious care to the pacing to certain plot points that, though subtle, are unique to both films. I would be surprised if WINGS did not in some way inspire Shinkai. There are also real-world parallels: both Shinkai and Studio Gainax made their original reputations from short films, then stunned the world with amazing feature-length debuts. Whereas in my opinion Gainax has never quite lived up to the promise of Wings of Honneamise, I think Makoto Shinkai has the potential to claim a spot among the great anime directors like Hayao Miyazaki, Isao Takahata, and Satoshi Kon.

You might have noticed that I haven't really addressed the plot yet. Though the film has one, and a captivating one at that, it is not about the story per se. It is in large part a reminiscence, a haunted longing for things that seem barely out of reach but are still beyond the grasp. It is a moody, melancholy film, and yet it is not depressing. It is hopeful yet sad. It is emotional without being manipulative. All those superlatives being said, if you come into it wanting a great science fiction movie, you may leave disappointed. Science fiction is certainly a part of the film and central to its plot, but it's not about that. The film leaves many of the science fiction aspects mysterious and unexplained; this is not a film about technobabble. Shinkai realizes that the best sci-fi is not about the gadgets or the mechanical workings but about us, about how we relate with one another. In their best moments, sci-fi classics like 2001, the Star Trek films and TV shows, and Solaris knew it too. Just enjoy the ride.

One other point: this movie is deliberate. (I could call it slow, but that would imply that it somehow drags, which it doesn't.) It's engaging, but it is the opposite of hyper. Fans weaned on spastic action may get bored. However, that's not my problem; I'm just here to let you know. It's not one I would rent for the kids, though there's nothing offensive about it. Much of its appeal is in discussing subjects that will have much greater meaning for late teens and adults. Also, sadly, the dub doesn't quite have the emotional resonance of the original...and because the voices and inflections are so important, I would stick with the sub if at all possible.

I could go on and on about The Place Promised In Our Early Days, but you've read enough laudation from me. This film did what seldom anime does: it moved me. And I hope you'll trust me enough to pick it up and risk being moved yourself.

The Place Promised in Our Early Days -- mild violence -- A+