There are simple love stories and there are complex love stories. Both of them have their place. Sometimes you need a simple boy meets girl story. Sometimes you need a love story with a little more dimensions and depth. I won’t say more real because sometimes love is not all that complicated. Angst does not make things more real. Love may be powerful, there might be numerous obstacles blocking it, and there might be hard choices involved with it but it is not necessarily complicated. Makoto Shinkai has progressed in his career and as such his love stories have gained more complexity.
I was so looking forward to this film. Seeing Makoto Shinkai jump from his little-over-half-hour creation to a full film was a very exciting prospect. What sort of story would be tell with a full cast, crew, and a more liberal budget? He brings the themes he cemented in our minds so well in Voices of a Distant Star and combines it with a more complex vision.
Japan is a divided nation. Southern Japan is allied with America and Northern Japan is allied with the Union. Since the division the North has created a mysterious tower that scrapes the heavens which can be seen from miles away. Two best friends, Hiroki Fujisawa and Takuya Shirakawa, decide to take a downed fighter drone they found and turn it into an airplane so they can examine the tower. One day the girl they both like, Sayuri Sawatari, tags along to visit them and becomes involved with their project. Sayuri disappears and it kills any momentum the boys had for working on the project. They grow up and go their separate ways each leading different lives and each dealing with the events of that summer in their own way. But what happened to Sayuri and what was her connection to the mysterious tower?
Sayuri’s first interactions with the boys, from the audiences perspective, are very different from each other. However, through them we see a girl who is full of life but constantly running from an unknown force. Everyone in the story is connected around the tower whether it is through relation to one another or helping to get there. While the story takes place in a warring and dysfunctional era, it is merely the back drop for an endearing story about love and friendship.
Takuya is the straight-laced guy with glasses and Hiroki is the more laid back goofy friend. They both have their areas of expertise which complement one another. They are both both very passionate but not necessarily in any particular area. Hiroki seems mechanically adept and practices archery. Takuya is generally smart and good with computers. We are then introduced to Sayuri. She is a gentle dreamer who is reserved but friendly. She does not seem to have the drive of Takuya and Hiroki but she is quite skilled at the violin. When she learns about the boys project to fly to the tower she gets caught up in their passion and in turn increases the boys passion for the project as well. This culminates in the titular promise between the three of them.
Our three main characters all have very simple qualities that make they relatable. As Makoto desires, we see these characters as a reflection of who we once knew or were. Takuya and Hiroki’s easy friendship is perfectly reflective or their age and becomes even more so when they encounter each other again years later. Takuya comes off as self-reliant and reserved while Hiroki has much less confidence than Takuya, he makes up for it with his good-natured attitude. Their personalities clash but that is what makes them a perfect pair. One has lost his drive and one is driven so much he has forgotten. Sayuri is quite but you know something is going on below the surface. She is able to befriend and inspire these boys. And when she is gone they fall apart. In only a short period she became a linchpin.
Unlike Voices of a Distant Star, there is time to introduce a larger cast outside of our principal love story. This is also another benefit to having more of a production crew. Both boys work for Mr. Okabe at a manufacturing factory. He acts as their mentor and encourages them while looking out for them. He seems a little gruff but is charming and playful when he wants to be. When we skip ahead three years we learn there is more to him the we first suspect. Also when we skip ahead we are introduced to one of Takuya’s fellow researchers. She is friends with Takuya but also obviously in love with him as well.
This larger and more rounded cast gives a fullness to the story. While it doesn’t really take away anything from our main characters, it helps to give a feeling of the world view. This also keeps the story from occurring in a vacuum. Probably most memorable is the young boys’ boss who pretends to be discouraging but is really looking out for Takuya and Hiroki in their attempts to build a plane. He also has strong feelings about the Northern section of Japan as well as the tower in the distance. Takuya’s older version has many people around him in various capacities. Hiroki has no one we are actually introduced to in the future. This speaks volumes about the internal workings of these two, now separated, friends.
The major theme of The Place Promised in Our Early Days is separation. Each one of the characters is separated from something. After Japan is divided into two countries it seems to divide the people, too. Takuya, Hiroki, and Sayuri are divided after the summer. Takuya and Hiroki eventually lose touch. Several other characters are separated from their families. Sayuri is eventually separated from more than just her friends. We see how all the characters deal with loss. No matter how the characters grapple with it, they always seem lesser after the separations. They seem always to be seeking a way to reunite with what was taken away from them. However, not all the characters are initially sure how to do that.
I always see a lot in Makoto Shinkai’s films about characters being unable to forget things or people. Even though you may put it at the back your mind, it still lingers in your everyday life even if you don’t recognize it. This simple idea pushes all of our characters in different directions proving how different personalities can shape an event. The distance experienced in this film is a little more abstract. We have the physical distance of the unknown but we also a metaphysical distance of the mind. One can’t be reconciled without the other. And as always, love is the major theme driving this story.
It is immediately obvious that Takuya and Hiroki have feelings for Sayuri. Both of them react to her differently but obviously care very deeply for her. Sayuri is made to seem to like Takuya and Hiroki as friends but does not favor either of them. Actually I feel it’s obvious to which of them she likes more but is always subtly expressed. Nothing is ever spelled out for you but it is easy to tell if you pay attention. I was never sure if either Takuya or Hiroki was aware of the crush that the other had on Sayuri. I assume they are aware but once again it is always subtle clues that show us how they feel. When Sayuri disappears they react very differently. Takuya flounders about a bit but then throws him self into his next project. Hiroki on the other hand falls into a deep depression. He moves on and even takes up the violin but he seems a shadow of his former exuberance.
Hiroki and Takuya are different but they are able to fall in love with the same girl. Probably for different reasons though. Sayuri has an aura about her that makes you care about her so it is no surprise that these boys do too. When they are kids with big dreams they are a perfect team. The love triangle apparent in this show actually seems to bring people together more than pull them apart. Sayuri is just different enough to each of them that her feelings aren’t hidden from us for long. And after the many years of space between them, their reunion it is truly breathtaking. It is a hopeful love full of courage and conviction.
The biggest improvement that came with having people under him was the ability to expand on the visuals of his first movie. Now his character designs can be fully realized. All the characters are clearly still designed by Makoto Shinkai but now are professionally animated. The CG is still some of the best you will see. When you mix this with his brilliant directorial sense they create some breathtaking scenes. Makoto Shinkai notably likes to make sure that the backgrounds active during dialog. This adds to the scene without becoming a distraction. Look how the light reflected on the train enhances a scene between Hiroki and Sayuri. Despite having sci-fi themes, most of the CG goes into enhancing the everyday views.
One of the many things I love about Makoto Shinkai is his ability to tell a story without intense amounts of exposition. He visually conveys things beautifully and unforgettably. The Place Promised in Our Early Days is no exception to that. His use of light many times over make scenes striking. An especially intense moment of this is when two characters come together after a long time. It makes the scene! He also continues his use of odd camera angles which once again helps us know things through intuition and not through dialogue. There is also and especially good ending song to this film.
The one thing to keep in mind with this film, or any of Makoto Shinkai’s works, is that the relationship and love are the central story. Everything else is background. This is especially important with this piece because very little about the war is sufficiently explained and it is certainly not fully resolved by the end. I don’t consider this poor storytelling in the least. It is very much intentional as far as I can see. Things swirl around these characters and we are merely seeing a few moments in their life. We don’t even truly see an ending for the characters’ journey. The ambiguity of his endings places the viewer in command. Makoto Skinkai makes us take clues and cues from his work and decide for ourselves how we see it.
Having gained a great deal of critical acclaim from Voices of a Distant Star Makoto Shinkai quickly became a hot commodity. There was even a chapter of Hayate the Combat Butler parodying the movie and that is the clearest sign that you have finally made it. This success facilitated his never project being more more grandiose and him finally getting a team to work under him as opposed to him doing most of it on his own. This means his major sophomore work is far more polished than his previous work. The heart and direction is still brilliant but now the production values are on the same level as well. In The Place Promised in Our Early Day we really get to see him flex his directorial muscles now that he has the room to do so. An excellent sophomore work.
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5. Animation Runner Kuromi 2
4. Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex 2nd GIG
3. Jubei-Chan 2: The Counter Attack of Siberia Yagyu
2. Macross 7
1. Urusei Yatsura Movie 2: Beautiful Dreamer