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Place Promised in Our Early Days, The

Original title: Kumo no mukô, yakusoku no basho

D: Makoto Shinkai / 90m

Cast: Hidetaka Yoshioka, Masato Hagiwara, Yuka Nanri, Unshô Ishizuka, Kazuhiko Inoue, Risa Mizuno

In an alternate reality, Japan is a divided nation. The northern half, Hokkaido, is ruled by the Union, while Honshu and everything else to the south is overseen by the US. At some point after the division, a tower that stretches up and beyond the clouds was built on Hokkaido, but the reason for its having been built is unknown.

One summer, two young friends, Hiroki (Yoshioka) and Takuya (Hagiwara), decide to build a plane that will enable them to fly to the top of the Tower (and maybe find out what it does). They spend all their spare time finding parts for the plane and assembling it, and are aided by their employer during school breaks, Mr Okabe (Ishizuka). One day, Takuya finds himself talking to a girl both friends know called Sayuri (Nanri). He tells her about the plane and she tags along when he next goes to the abandoned train station where they’re building it. Despite, Hiromi’s doubts about her being included in their plans, her enthusiasm for the project wins him over.

As they grow older, and the plane nears completion, Sayuri begins to have strange dreams that are connected to the Tower. One such dream sees the Tower exploding and causing tremendous destruction. Shortly after, Sayuri falls ill and is taken to Tokyo for treatment. Three years pass, during which Hiroki and Takuya stop work on the plane and go their separate ways. The political situation worsens between the Union and the US, and war is imminent. Sayuri has been asleep for the last three years, but she has been studied during this time, as her dream activity is reflected in the activity of the Tower. When Sayuri dreams, the Tower produces sufficient energy to overlay a separate reality on the area immediately around it. The scientists studying the Tower and Sayuri believe that if she were to wake up, the Tower would replace the existing reality with another, completely different one.

With Takuya being a part of the research team investigating the Tower, he learns of the connection to Sayuri and determines to free her from the hospital where she’s being kept. He enlists Hiroki’s aid in completing the plane and together they aim to fly it, with Sayuri aboard, close enough to wake her, and then to destroy the Tower with a missile. But they choose to do this just as the war breaks out, and the likelihood of their being successful is drastically reduced.

Place Promised in Our Early Days, The - scene

If your experience of Japanese anime has been restricted to the movies produced by Studio Ghibli, you could be forgiven for thinking that movies such as Howl’s Moving Castle (2004) and Arrietty (2010) are the pinnacle of that particular genre. But there are so many other fine examples out there that it’s sometimes worth the reminder that Studio Ghibli isn’t the only purveyor of tremendous Japanese anime.

Because such is the case with The Place Promised in Our Early Days. Starting out as a coming of age tale that is both affecting, and quietly and unobtrusively observed, the movie introduces its three main characters with a winning amiability. Hiroki and Takuya’s friendship is warm, committed and unselfish; they’re a good match too in terms of their intelligence and skills. And Sayuri is the girl who binds their relationship even tighter, making it stronger and more deep-rooted. The script, by director Shinkai from his own story, resists the temptation to introduce a love triangle, and the movie benefits immeasurably from this, the viewer unencumbered with having to worry as to which one of Hiroki and Takuya will be chosen over the other. Instead, two close friends become three, and each share in each other’s ambitions and concerns.

When the story changes focus in the second half and becomes more of a thriller, Shinkai retains the trio’s connections and shows how time and distance has failed to erode their bond. This allows for an emotional follow-through that adds to the increased pace and race-against-time urgency of the last twenty minutes. Takuya’s determination is easily understood, as is Hiroki’s initial reluctance to become involved in the plane and their original plan. And through it all there’s Saruyi’s consciousness, putting together the clues from her childhood, and from her time with her two friends, in order to work out the mystery of the Tower. Shinkai juggles the expanding storylines of the movie’s second half with ease, while darkening the tone and still managing to retain some of the lyricism of the first half.

The plot and storylines are served greatly by some stunning animation, with the rural location where Hiroki and Takuya build their plane offering vistas of dazzling beauty. Shinkai – again – leads the movie’s animators in creating a world that is similar and different to ours at the same time, and includes all manner of small touches that illustrate the differences (check out the advertisement for “Popsi”). The blue skies and green fields, even the greys of the town, are all shot – again by Shinkai – with a view to making it all look richly alluring, a feast for the eyes that provides ravishing image after ravishing image. Even when the tone darkens, the movie is still striking to watch and rewards the eye continuously.

On the minus side, Saruyi’s eyes have that enlarged look favoured by animators the world over, the urgency in rescuing her from the hospital is forced on the plot without any build-up, and some of the political manoeuvring of the second half is glossed over or given just a passing nod – everyone talks about the war being inevitable and no one tries to stop it. And the finale strays too close to being confusing to provide the emotional dividends that the viewer has every right to expect.

Rating: 8/10 – breathtaking and beautiful to watch for most of its running time, The Place Promised in Our Early Days is a minor masterpiece from Makoto Shinkai and shows that Japanese anime has more to offer than talking animals and creatures from Japanese folklore; a more emotional tale than usual but this is easily the movie’s strength, and it’s backed up (not overwhelmed) by some superb animation.