Makoto Shinkai Retrospective: The Place Promised in Our Early Days

Even in movies I like, there are occasionally times when it feels like they hit on a fantastic idea that goes to waste. Makoto Shinkai's first feature film, The Place Promised in Our Early Days, has a lot of that. As an expansion upon his basic craft and a decent story about three friends whose lives are separated by a mysterious tragedy, it's pretty solid. There is also an entire alternate post-WWII history, a massive tower that can recreate matter, and the concept of being connected to alternate dimensions through dreams. While these all have vital roles in the plot, they feel like tertiary events that are barely explored when each could make their own movie.
Picking up right where he left off with Voices of a Distant Star, Shinkai starts with a heavy dose of nostalgic middle school life with a twist. In this case, we have two boys and girl named Hiroki, Takuya, and Sayuri, respectively.  They do the usual activities (As much as speed skating can be considered usual) and are looking forward to life in high school together. The significant difference is the boys join up with a military contractor to save money to build their own plane to fly to a massive tower on Hokkaido (Called Ezo here) that reaches past the heavens and is built by a Northern Japan/Soviet Union coalition.

Let's back up a bit.

In this alternate history, Japan was separated between a north side that supported Russia called the Union and a south side backed by America. This separation has brought a far higher concentration of military equipment to the nation and they are always on the verge of war. In this time, the Union has built a tower that can be seen from hundreds of miles. What is its purpose? While the older generation deems it a threat and a challenge, the younger generation sees it as a curiosity that's been a part of their entire lives and yet they know nothing about it. Demanding an explanation and making little pokes at the Union to provoke them, allied Japan is getting closer and closer to igniting a powder keg. Meanwhile, the tower's inventor, Ekusun Tsukinoe, is nowhere to be found.

The first half-hour is drenched in nostalgia. It's the kind of nostalgia that finds the sun going down as students clean up following their after-school activities to be one of the most serenely precious settings. It is within these rose-colored glasses where we find the trio hanging out, even in the midst of making missile guidance systems for the military contractors (Their boss is one of those gruff men who becomes exceptionally nice when you bring a girl around). The boys both secretly love Sayuri, but it seems Hiroki has the edge, as Takuya struggles to even have a basic conversation with her when they're not all together. But alas, the happy days of youth cannot be maintained (As symbolized by a literal thunder storm rolling into the background). Sayuri eventually drops into a mysterious coma and the two boys split off into separate high schools.

Three years later in the story and the movie becomes a huge info dump and gets way more intriguing at the same time (Though the middle school section does have its charms). Takuya has moved on to becoming an assistant physicist to experiments involving trading matter with alternate universes. In this world, they've discovered there are branching universes and sometimes we connect to them in our dreams. While the allied scientists are barely able to make a speck of alternate matter visible for a few seconds, the Union has the power to completely rewrite reality as shown by the tower completely erasing 2 kilometers around it Fortunately, the tower has been silent for years, giving South Japan an opportunity to catch up. The idea of multiple dimensions connected by dreams is a fantastic idea (And one I tried to make into my own novel around when this came out, just my luck), and they have the angle of making it a gigantic chess game for both sides to recreate this reality into the one where either side wins. That concept disappears almost the moment it's explained.

On the other side of the plot, Takuya's boss, Professor Tomizawa, has secretly acquired the still-asleep Hiroki as a part of his experiments. While he doesn't inform Takuya about this, a letter explaining where she is makes it to Hiroki, who's slogging through high school, but lives a mostly glum and isolated existence. A small fire is lit under him when he visits Hiroki's room before she was transferred and can still feel her presence. Meanwhile, Hiroki is all alone in a completely decimated world, only occasionally feeling some kind of life or getting a vision of a massive explosion.

There are so many more angles to this feature including and underground rebel group, but we'll stop there. What I'm getting at is this a ton of sprawling story for a 90-minute feature and it hardly has the time to scratch the surface or address most of it. As I've said, the alternate universe cold war arms race drops out of sight fairly quickly when it's suggested why everything at the tower stopped and most of the events circle back to acting as service to the three main characters. It's certainly tidy, but wow, it leaves a lot on the table as far as what the narrative could've explored.

Shinkai now has a core of about a dozen animators and the ability to outsource some of the non-key animation to other companies like Xebec rather than doing everything himself, but he still holds directing, producing, writing, editing, cinematography, and storyboarding duties. The character animation is far more consistent than Voices of a Distant Star, though there are still a couple talky scenes where it lingers on the physical surroundings with looping animation to keep lip flaps and facial expressions at a minimum. These moments bothered me much more when I first watched it than they do now and I can only pinpoint it to not expecting Shinkai's more deliberate pacing (This was the first work of his I watched) and the slowed movement stretched out the two spots in my mind to longer than they were. The scene at the restaurant is still too much plain exposition not presented in any interesting way.

With all of that said, what is impressive about Shinkai at this point is his mastery of mood and his ability to get an image to express exactly what he wants in his first feature-length movie. Say what you will about the first half hour being too clogged with nostalgia, it looks and feels exactly as it should. It's told as a flashback, so it understandably has the rougher edges faded and even high noon on a particularly hot Summer day feels like a work of art because the feelings attached resonated far more with the narrator than everything else. This contrasts with the more washed out scenery of the present where the most dynamic aspects are the military mechanisms and scientific instruments that are pushing the world closer to the brink astoundingly quickly. Hiroki's dream space is properly surreal and lonely. The use of clouds and the sky throughout all of it to properly anchor the feature visually is effective and looks breathtaking even if what they're expressing is a little too on-the-nose at times.

As a writer, Shinkai often has the weird issue of being too blatant and too subtle, often simultaneously. This oxymoron is in full play here as one can definitely pick up what he's putting down about the struggles of reaching maturity blown up to a potential world-erasing event, but you could watch this movie three or four times and miss vital information in regards to understanding the plot. The movie's biggest question, what the ultimate purpose of the giant tower is, doesn't have an obvious answer at first glance. Its the main question, and if you lost attention for a second in a seemingly small conversation, you missed the ultimate answer. Strangely, there are bits and pieces of subplots here and there that seem like they were dropped, but at the same time, don't. Professor Tomizawa has a moment late in the movie where it implies he had a similar childhood to the main characters with the boss at the weapons contractor facility. It's one of those ambiguous details that's nice for people dissecting the film to play with, but for me, it added nothing to the movie itself than trying to give some depth to a character skirting the edge of the plot.

The leads are all right as far as creating a sympathetic core. We get to know them enough to feel for their plights, though Hiroki is definitely "the girl." She gets the hobby of reading, but even a good amount of that is foreshadowing, as is her dialogue. CLEVER foreshadowing, I'll grant that, but there's little to her besides what happens to and around her. The boys also get a bit of artificial chemistry at times, including a speech where they say lines simultaneously in such a fashion that it could only come from a script in a movie. But the performers themselves give enough a vibe to get a good enough idea of who their roles are.

One thing I neglected in my last review was the music of Shinkai's own John Williams, Tenmon. This is going to sound like a backhanded compliment when it's really not, but his music sounds like the kind of soundtrack visual novels makers wish they had in their games. He makes solemn, wistful themes used plenty of times (And in this case, one theme is a plot point) that are sturdy enough to carry the entire work they're featured in. His music is very pretty, makes an effective ear worm, and is usually one of the best parts to a Shinkai flick. I really don't know what more to add than that.

The Place Promised in Our Early Days is a fairly good feature film debut. Despite a few early filmmaker hitches, the only real flaw is it perhaps had too much ambition, parking too many awesome concepts into a basic story that couldn't explore them all. You know, too much ambition isn't the worst thing in the world unless your budget's five bucks. I would like to see a movie that actually centers on jumping through multiple dimensions in people's dreams, though. As is, it's a good first movie and a steady improvement for a talented filmmaker. Next time you see me, we'll be talking Makoto Shinkai's potentially most divisive work, 5 Centimeters per Second. At least, from my experience, it is. The only united opinion is I've had people had people who both love AND hate the movie yell at me for being wrong, for whatever that's worth.


Popular Posts