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Place Promised in Our Early Days, The
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by Jay Seaver

"An attention-getting anime debut."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2005 FANTASIA FESTIVAL: The "science fiction should focus on human emotions, not big explosions or cool ideas" crowd should be quite fond of "The Place Promised Us in Our Early Days". Though it features a multitude of intriguing concepts and a potentially action-packed ending, Makoto Shinkai's film maintains a rigorous focus on its three main characters. As a fan of "hard" science-fiction, I must admit to wishing these ideas were explored in a little more detail, but the work is very strong. It's absolutely worth a look, and its director is one to follow.

The film takes place in an alternate history, where Japan was partitioned much like Germany after World War II. Hokkaido and the northern archipelago have been annexed into "the Union" (the word "Soviet" is curiously omitted) while Honshu and the southern islands are under American influence. Middle-schoolers Hiroki Fujisawa and Takuya Shirakawa live just across the Tsugaru Strait from Hokkaido and the enormous tower built there in the early 1970s - one so tall that it seems to stretch into infinity, and which can be seen all the way from Tokyo. They dream of building a plane to fly to that tower, and using found materials (including an engine), they start on it. Soon included in their plans is Sayuri Sawatari, a girl in their class who is related to the genius who designed the tower for the Union (among other scientific breakthroughs).

They do not finish; Sayuri becomes sick, and Hiroki's family moves to Tokyo. When we pick their story up several years later, Takuya is involved with an underground movement, while Hiroki is being recruited for a government program to study what is going on at the tower. The tower is not a skyhook, as one may have surmised; it's something far stranger, and the promise to fly to the tower will have far larger consequences that they could have originally imagined.

Writer/director/producer Makoto Shinkai turned a lot of heads with his previous work, the twenty-five minute short "Voices of a Distant Star", in part because it almost a one-man show. The Place Promised Us in Our Early Years is his first studio work and first feature, and it shows some signs of of inexperience. I occasionally lost track of which adult was Takuya and which was Hiroki after the shift from the characters' adolescence to their adulthood, for instance, and the triangle setup between the kids is perhaps a little too low-key.

Still, Shinkai does some things exceptionally well. Though some of his world's background is delivered to the audience via narration, he does a good job of establishing his world in a low-key manner. This is a very character-driven movie, and Shinkai never loses sight of that, so there's not much room for digressions to describe the story's divergent history or imaginary technology, so everything must be worked into the dialogue naturally, and in relatively small doses. He also makes excellent use of "effects animation", creating beautiful lighting effects that recall perfect summer days and the glint of the sun off the water. Sayuri's dream world is a somewhat familiar environment, but nightmarishly effective nonetheless. The otherworldly design also impresses; there is the omnipresent tower, of course, but also beautifully designed flying machines, and the wholly believable abandoned train station where the boys build their own plane.

Especially noteworthy is how Shinkai ends the movie. Not so much the result, but his resolve to stick to what he knows to be the film's themes. The conventional set-up would be to end with fireworks, perhaps the tower falling down, MiGs intercepting the homemade jet, and an action scene involving the nationalist underground that has played a role throughout the movie. But this movie isn't about that; it's about promises made during more innocent times being kept. This is not the story of a group of freedom fighters (though they figure into the movie); it's about Hiroki, Sayuri, and Takuya, and when their story is complete, the movie ends, even though the grander-scale stories are still ongoing.

Makoto Shinkai is going to be a big name in the future of animation; consider that this movie won an award or two in Japan for "Best Animated Feature", and not only is animation far more popular and respected in Japan than in the U.S., but the competition included features by two bona fide legends, Katsuhiro Otomo's "Steamboy" and "Howl's Moving Castle" by Hayao Miyazaki. That's a heck of an honor, and the film deserves more attention (and audience) here in the U.S. than its direct-to-video release.

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originally posted: 07/24/05 11:56:02
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2005 Fantasia Festival For more in the 2005 Fantasia Festival series, click here.

User Comments

9/28/05 Kuwatara It is by far the best animated movie ever. 5 stars
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Directed by
  Makoto Shinkai

Written by
  Makoto Shinkai

  Masato Hagiwara
  Yuka Nanri
  Hidetaka Yoshioka

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