Judge Joel Pearce was never promised a person, place, or thing in his early days...and he's still bitter about it.
Our review of Shinkai: Collection, published January 13th, 2006, is also available.
I remember how much you and the world were full of mysteries.
Makoto Shinkai made a big impression with his first film, Voices of a Distant Star. He made the 25-minute film himself, designing and building it on a home computer. As a follow-up, he brought some other animators and artists onboard and created his first feature, The Place Promised in Our Early Days.
Facts of the Case
Two friends, Hiroki and Takuya, long to build a plane and travel to a distant tower that reaches into the sky. Since the war that divided Japan into two countries, it is illegal for them to make that journey. Something draws them to the tower, though, irresistibly pulling them to an unknown fate. This pull only increases as the two friends get to know Sayuri, a beautiful young girl who has strange, premonitory dreams.
As the three grow older, they find themselves on different sides of a new war. The two friends are now enemies, fighting over the secret of the great tower. Sayuri seems to be the key to the secret, as she has fallen permanently into her mysterious dream. The two friends must meet once again, unsure whether their actions will save the world or destroy it.
The most impressive science fiction presents fully-realized strange new worlds. That is the greatest accomplishment of The Place Promised in Our Early Days, which features stunning animation, interesting science, and a fascinating central mystery.
The world Shinkai has created comes to magnificent life through the animation, which blends cel animation with extremely slick CGI. The two elements have been perfectly blended, allowing for detailed and stylized characters on a colorful backdrop of gorgeous moving skies, richly painted backdrops, and subtle changes in light. Every moment of the film is carefully crafted, a labor of love for the small animation team. If they took any shortcuts to keep under budget, it never shows for a second. Lovers of animation will want to check the film out just for the delightful artwork. And the sound design is every bit as strong, full of detail and subtlety.
The story is also quite intriguing. The science, which involves the development of weapons that are able to transfer matter from parallel universes, is well-developed and comparatively plausible. Since it is new technology in the world, it isn't taken for granted like so much sci-fi science. Realistically, though, the film's science is less science than magic. Sayuri sees the future in her dreams, and has a magical connection to the tower and the people behind the development of the technology. Prophesies are often an interesting way to launch a plot, and it works well here. The movement of the plot towards a critical preordained event lends The Place Promised in Our Early Days a much needed urgency, which accelerates as the Japanese civil war starts up again.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Unfortunately, the momentum created by the prophesy isn't enough to cover up some of the film's weaknesses. The simple, nostalgic storytelling style that worked so well in Shinkai's 25-minute debut is all wrong in a feature-length film. At times, the beauty of the animation is meant to take center stage, but audiences can only watch beautiful skies for so long before wanting to see the plot advance. Some of the symbolism and imagery is overcooked as well. This may have worked in the original manga form of the story, but many viewers will have guessed several of the major twists by 15 minutes in. The final disappointment comes via one of the most abrupt endings ever.
The pacing is off as well. Although I will be the first to say that all anime shouldn't have the manic, breakneck pacing of Excel Saga, I also have to admit that The Place Promised in Our Early Days can be quite mind-numbing at times. The script is awkward, with conversations that drag on for too long, going nowhere, fading out just as they are about to reach an interesting point. There are long, static silences at the wrong moments. When the war finally resumes, it seems strangely small-scale. Perhaps this reveals just how small the budget was, and it's a minor complaint when the flight action is so well constructed.
Ultimately, The Place Promised in Our Early Days is as disappointing a film as it is a beautiful one. Such a stunning production deserves a much better script and a lot less personal indulgences on the part of the director and animators. It's a film that I wanted to love, but had a hard time even focusing on by the end.
That said, I have nothing but praise for the disc released by ADV Films. This is one of the rare flawless anime video transfers, revealing no flaws in either the source material or the mastering process. Lines are clean, colors are bursting with just the right amount of saturation, and there are no gradient lines or halos at all. The sound is just as good, with rich Dolby 5.1 tracks in both English and Japanese. The English dub is very pleasant to listen to, with a good translation and perfect timing. The Japanese track is even better, with voice work that better captures the languorous pace of the film.
There are also several extras on the disc. In a pleasant turn of events, they focus on the original producers, rather than the English voice cast, like so many of ADV's releases. There are interviews with Shinkai and the three leads in which they discuss the characters and their take on the film. The Shinkai interview is the most interesting, and it also shows a lot of the storyboards from the film and his earlier artwork. Also included are several trailers from the film.
For its beauty and potential, I will recommend The Place Promised in Our Early Days as a rental to anime fans. It is gorgeous, and some viewers will be caught up by it more than I was. Still, it is slow and abstract enough that I can't recommend it as a blind buy. ADV has certainly given it a strong treatment, though, so fans of the film shouldn't hesitate to pick it up.
Not guilty, though Shinkai is hereby placed on probation. Next time, hopefully he can deliver a film worthy of his vision.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: ADV Films
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