In 2000, Makoto Shinkai released Voices Of A Distant Star, a 30-minute short that instantly brought him acclaim throughout the anime community, and for good reason. Not only was Voices... a beautifully animated OVA with a clever and quite affecting storyline, but Shinkai had produced it entirely by himself, creating it on his trusty Macintosh computer after leaving his job in the video game industry. The short went onto garner a number of awards, including a "Special Prize" at the 2002 Japan Media Arts Festival and "Most Valuable Newcomer" award at the 2002 Tokyo International Anime Fair.
Perhaps the highest praise of all came when people began referring to Shinkai as "the next Miyazaki". That might seem a little presumptuous, comparing a newcomer with just a handful of works to his name to animation's Grand Master. However, it's not entirely implausible either. Both Shinkai and Miyazaki create lushly animated features with an obvious emphasis on good stories first and foremost. Animation-wise, Shinkai is clearly influenced by the works of Miyazaki, from the look of his skies (complete with deep layers of clouds) and flying sequences to his obvious love for gorgeous pastoral scenes.
All of those things feature quite heavily in Shinkai's newest work, the full-length feature The Place Promised In Our Early Days. With The Place Promised In Our Early Days, Shinkai has clearly decided against resting on his laurels and has gone for something much more ambitious. (And yes, Shinkai still does the lion's share of the work here, including directing, writing, artwork, editing, and sound direction.)
The Place Promised In Our Early Days is set in an alternate timeline where Japan has been divided into two countries after losing World War II. The southern half is under U.S. control whereas the northern half is held by a mysterious organization known only as "Union". Two high school students from the southern half, Takuya and Hiroki, are obsessed with building an airplane and flying across the sea to the north. Their goal is to discover the secrets behind the mysterious tower that Union has built on the northern island of Hokkaido. Noone knows what it does, but it looms over the horizon, and the boys are driven to find out whatever they can, working summer jobs to get spare parts for their plane, the "Bella Ciela".
There's another thing that interests the boys, however. Their classmate, Sayuri. The three are close friends, spending their vacations together. Although they're hesitant to tell her their secret plans, Takuya and Hiroki tell her eventually, and the three of them make a promise to fly to the tower together someday. But that someday never comes.
After their summer of promise, Sayuri slips into a mysterious coma that lasts for years. Discouraged, as if they've lost their anchor, the boys abandon their plans and go their separate ways. Takuya begins working for the government, doing experimental research into parallel universes. Hiroki moves to Tokyo, hoping to put his loss behind him only to end up a broken, lonely soul.
The themes of The Place Promised In Our Early Days are quite evident throughout the film -- the value of promises, the power of dreams, nostalgia, youthful love, etc. It could make for pretty heavy-handed and cliched stuff, and indeed, The Place Promised In Our Early Days does get pretty melodramatic at times. However, what keeps it from ever becoming too sappy or sentimental is Shinkai's stunningly detailed artwork and animation. In all seriousness, this is one of the most beautiful anime titles I've ever seen, even outshining some of Studio Ghibli's offerings. There were many times where I had to force myself to pay attention to the dialog simply because some visual, often in the background, captured my eye.
The film's early scenes are bathed in golden light, wrapping the first third or so of the film in a nostalgic glaze that not only enhances the film's dialog, but even transcends the dialog, giving the viewer an even better sense of the adventure and happiness that Takuya, Hiroki, and Sayuri experience back then.
One of my favorite scenes in the film's first half takes place as Hiroki and Sayuri ride home together on the train. The two are placed down in the corner of the frame and surrounded by a soft warm glow, almost like an afterthought. The focus is on the way the light of the setting sun streams in through the windows, the way it dances across the ceiling of the traincar and casts shadows on the floor. These are the details Shinkai focuses on, not necessarily on the conversation that Hiroki and Sayuri are having, and it works wonderfully, giving much more weight to the world in which they live as well as the the fragile nature of the simple moment they're sharing.
Later in the film, as the older Hiroki is wandering through the streets of Tokyo, the colors are darker, grayer, more muted. Unable to separate himself from his childhood promises, and haunted by the loss of Sayuri, Hiroki is now more a shell than a human being. These scenes are divided into little vignettes, and again, Shinkai pays great attention to the subtle details of Hiroki's loneliness, making it almost palpable at times, which is quite a feat in animation as far as I'm concerned. At times, the sense of loneliness becomes quite overwhelming, such that I began to wonder if Shinkai wasn't drawing too heavily on some past experiences of his own. Whatever the case, this sense of nuance abounds throughout much of the film, adding extra heft to the plot and the themes that Shinkai is trying to get across.
Unfortunately, I think so much attention was placed on nuance and subtlety that the film stumbles a bit in its final act. When it comes to the answering some of the question that are naturally raised by the plot, Shinkai remains withdrawn, never fleshing things out as much as he possibly could. For example, the whole "parallel universes" subplot is never quite fleshed out, but used more as a convenient exposition device than a crucial plot element -- which might disappoint those looking for something a little more on the sci-fi end of the spectrum.
Additionally, so much emphasis is placed on the characters' obsession with their past, namely Hiroki's sense of loss for Sayuri, that when they finally do something in the present it feels a little underwhelming -- and that goes for even the film's climactic moment. Some of the main character's actions come off feeling a bit arbitrary.
There are places where the ambiguities left in the story are welcome. I, for one, am glad that we never quite learn what "Union" is, or that certain relationships in the film aren't as fleshed out as they could be. These little hints serve only to make the world of The Place Promised In Our Early Days seem much larger and more colorful. And it's quite obvious that Shinkai isn't interested in telling a hardcore sci-fi type of story. Ultimately, the film is a nostalgic and romantic tale of childhood promises and dreams -- and when you take it at that and let yourself get lost in the visuals, the quibbles I mention above are reduced to just that, minor quibbles.
It's a difficult thing to find the balance between telling the viewer enough so that they're not confused and yet, at the same time, leaving enough mystery to evoke a sense of wonder. Shinkai gets it right 9 times out of 10. And the fact that he nails it so well on this, his first feature and only second commercial title, is a very impressive and encouraging thing. He might not be the new Miyazaki yet. I personally think we need to see one more movie from the man before going that far. But if he continues to develop as an animator and storyteller at the rate he's currently going, soon there will be no question at all as to whether or not he deserves such a prestigious title.