(2004) Written and directed by Makoto Shinkai; Starring: Hidetaka Yoshioka, Masato Hagiwara and Yuka Nanri; Available on DVD.
Does the universe dream? Writer/director Makoto Shinkai raises this intriguing premise in the beautifully animated, but ultimately hollow exercise, The Place Promised in Our Early Days. This tale of love, war and parallel universes is better summarized than executed – a near miss that left me on the fence.
The Place Promised in Our Early Days is set in an alternate Japan divided into two factions: the Union in the north, and the United States-controlled south. Just within the Union border, in the prefecture of Hokkaido, stands an impossibly tall tower. The enigmatic structure, whose purpose remains unknown, could be the focal point of a war between both sides, but could also spell the destruction of reality as we know it. The tower becomes an object of fascination for childhood pals Hiroki Fujisawa and Takuya Shirakawa (voiced by Hidetaka Yoshioka and Masato Hagiwara, respectively), who are building an aircraft with the hope of exploring it close up. Their dynamic is changed forever when fellow classmate Sayuri Sawatari (voiced by Yuka Nanri) enters the mix. Hiroki and Sayuri make a promise to visit the tower together – a promise that gets indefinitely sidetracked when she mysteriously disappears. The story shifts ahead three years, as we discover that Sayuri has been in a coma.
Sayuri and her comatose state are somehow linked to the rhythms of the tower, and her awakening could mean disaster for Japan. The tower, which stretches endlessly to the sky, is the best part of the film. It represents the great unknown; a vast enigmatic monolith that could be the key to new worlds or the path to our own demise. We can only deduce that it’s some sort of experiment, weapon, or both, as it opens doors to multiple universes. Its effects elicit a metaphysical quandary: are these other universes simply the “dreams” of our own universe? If Shinkai had chosen to linger on this question rather than focus on the more prosaic dramatic elements of the story, we would have been left with an existential meditation on the nature of our existence instead of a film that retreats to familiar territory.
There’s a fine line between maintaining a deliberate pace and just being slow. The relatively brief running time belies the perception that it’s a much longer film. While I can appreciate that Shinkai probably wanted to establish a more leisurely pace, it’s hard to dispel the notion that we’re looking at a short film stretched to feature length. The love story, which is supposed to be the center of the film, is the weakest link, with lead characters that seem somnambulistic. Contributing to this general impression of lifelessness is the virtual absence of humor.
Despite all of my misgivings about The Place Promised in Our Early Days, I didn’t dislike it. However, I couldn’t shake the feeling that it could have been so much more. On the surface, the film has all the classic elements that would make it a timeless masterpiece: haunting visuals, universal themes of adolescent love, and a unique science fiction premise. Unfortunately, none of these pieces quite gel together (Compare to Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausica in the Valley of the Wind or Castle in the Sky, which cover similar ground, but are full of a sense of joie de vivre that’s conspicuously absent in this film). Shinkai is clearly a talented filmmaker, and if this film is any indication, he has the potential to turn out a truly great film someday, rather than this somewhat underdone, overrated effort. The Place Promised in Our Early Days is recommended for its stunning visuals and ambitious concept, if you can overlook the bland characterizations and languid pace.