The Place Promised in our Early Days is something I saw years ago but completely forgot about until I was rewatching it earlier. I also completely forgot it is a Makoto Shinkai piece, which is fairly embarrassing, and watching it again — after seeing his most recent work Your Name — has given me a much better idea of the kinds of films Shinkai likes to create. Produced in 2004, this film was Shinkai’s directorial debut and was the first time he worked with a full team and large-scale funding. Compared to Voices of a Distant Star, his other major work before this one, you can tell just how much just having a team and adequate funding can mean for a project. With high-quality animation, a great sci-fi mixed story, and skilled direction The Place Promised in Our Early Days becomes a breathtaking movie about friendship, promises, and tragedy.
The film begins with a look at a Japan split in two after Hokkaido was taken over by the Soviet Union. A large, mysterious tower in the center of the northern island looms over the rest of Japan, making the rest of the world question its purpose. Is it a weapon or some sort of machine used to study something? Three friends, Hiroki, Takuya, and Sayuri, are drawn to this tower and make a promise to fly there one day on the plane they are secretly building. But when Sayuri suddenly disappears and war begins edging ever closer, their promise is soon forgotten. That is until the area around the tower begins to disappear.
Makoto Shinkai has long been thought of as one of the best Japanese animation directors, coming in as a close second only to Hayao Miyazaki. I’ve already talked at length about his most recent full-length film, Your Name, and coming back to one of his earlier works has reinforced my appreciation for his skills as a director and storyteller as well as shown me some key Shinkai tropes to look out for in future movies. I’ll talk more about the tropes later, but for now I want to focus on the art and directing. The backgrounds throughout the movie were highly detailed, reinforced by wide-angle shots that are able to show off more of the scenery at a given time. Pulling away from the characters also allows for more shots where the tower is clearly shown in the background, reiterating just how large and imposing it is. But in simpler terms, the whole world Shinkai creates comes alive through the small details on cars, cities, and the ever-present billowing clouds in the background.
The more I looked closely at the directing, the more I found really interesting cinematography choices as well. Not only do we see wide-angle shots at a distance, but we see moments where Shinkai pulls the camera back and up into a corner, relegating the characters and their actions to one small section of the screen. One shot in particular has the camera shoved on top of a luggage rack on the train, looking down at the main characters. In a way, this presents the feeling of the viewer getting a sneak peak into their past, much like a security camera. In another shot, we see the camera angled down, cutting off the characters heads and focusing instead on their lower bodies. I’ve always loved these kinds of shots, and have gotten a new appreciation for them after shows like A Silent Voice and K-ON where they are very clearly evident. These kinds of shots allow for moments of deeper characterization through body language and a chance for the viewer to gain a different understanding of the characters without using expressions or even dialogue.
To talk about Shinkai, we also have to talk about how he mixes Science Fiction and slice of life to create stories that are both intriguing and thought provoking. The Place Promised in Our Early Days uses the base story of a giant tower built to study parallel universes as a stepping stone to talking about grief, friendship, love, and war. Within this we see one of Shinkai’s biggest tropes: his study of dreams and their ability to connect people. We see this pop up again in Your Name, but here Sayuri’s dreams hold the key to understanding the nature of other worlds and she is seen reaching out to Hiroki through her dreams to try and communicate. In this way, Shinkai comments on the very mysterious nature of dreams in general, and, later on in the movie, how fleeting our memories of our dreams are. In these moments he packs commentary on premonitions, alternate universes, dream analysis, and memory to interweave into the already interesting story he’s telling.
One of the main reasons I’m featuring this movie on my blog, however, is for its commentary on grief and love. Particularly how relationships are irreversibly changed by war. In the beginning we see the three of them planning for the future and making promises, but then Sayuri disappears and the tensions surrounding the tower begin to amp up to war. Hiroki and Takuya’s plans are shoved to the wayside, and we see Hiroki succumb to grief over the loss of Sayuri to the point where he moves to Tokyo in order to get as far away from that tower as possible. To them, the tower is the memory of their promise, and a constant reminder of what they lost. Both deal with their grief in different ways: Hiroki by running away and Takuya by fighting it. However, this also becomes the story of how life begins anew after tragedy, how all three find each other again and reform their relationships. Those very typical Shinkai billowing clouds in the background serving to add to the feeling of nostalgia for those early days of youth when the times were simpler.