English Title: The Place Promised in Our Early Days
Japanese Title: 雲のむこう、約束の場所 [lit. across the clouds, the promised place]
Director(s): Shinkai Makoto
Writer(s): Shinkai Makoto
Studio: CoMix Wave
Runtime: 1h 30m
Starring: Yoshioka Hidetaka, Hagiwara Masato, Nanri Yuka
The Place Promised in Our Early Days is Shinkai’s first feature-length work that, like most of his later works, explores friendship.
The setting is present day in an alternate history where Japan is divided between north and south. The south is aligned with the US and Hokkaido is occupied by the “Union”, presumably the Soviet Union. The atmosphere is similar to the Cold War but is heating up. In Hokkaido is a mysterious tall tower that can be seen from Tokyo, linked to the research of parallel universes and inter-dimensional transfer of energy/matter.
Fujisawa Hiroki and Shirakawa Takuya are two friends in middle school who aim to build an aircraft. They live in a rural town. During that time, they become friends with fellow student Sawatari Sayuri, promising her to fly her to the tower once their aircraft is completed. However, she disappears from their life and the two boys also grow apart after that.
A few years later, it is revealed that Sayuri’s disappearance was due to being hospitalized for a severe sleeping disorder and has been asleep for most of that time. In her state, she dreams and is alone in her dreams and, somehow, her mind is tied to the tower.
Like Voices of a Distant Star, the sci-fi premise is a device and not the emphasis of the story. In this case, if one takes the sci-fi aspects a little more seriously, then the story breaks down. If the purpose of the tower is so serious and potentially threatening, one would expect action to be taken sooner by the US-South alliance. But the tower is obviously a symbol of circumstances outside one’s control, amongst other things, so its purpose is partly metaphoric.
The first act essentially establishes the friendship between Hiroki, Takuya and Sayuri. In the second act, there is some recounting by Hiroki of the previous few years since Sayuri’s disappearance. Although Shinkai here resorts to a mildly non-linear narrative that keeps it interesting without rushing it, the film is initially a little slow. The pacing does improve, especially when Hiroki intends to fulfill his promise to Sayuri, convinced that she will wake up if he does. At that point, the logistics are handled a little too conveniently but the focus is on Hiroki, Takuya and Sayuri.
Visually, it is beautifully executed. Whether it is the city or outside of it, no detail is ignored. The background art is credited to Tanji Takumi and Watanabe Tasuku who both worked on Shinkai’s subsequent films. The sound and sound editing are well done too. The music composed by Tenmon is fitting, with some nice use of the violin.
Shinkai arguably takes the theme of “dreams and parallel universes” a little too far but the way he uses it is thematically consistent to the emotional struggles of growing apart. In that regard, it goes further than Voices of a Distant Star since this film deals with the struggles of being disconnected (without even sporadic connections) and the effort to reconnect.
For me, Hiroki’s sense of helplessness resonated more strongly in my second viewing. And it took a second viewing to better understand the layered meanings of Hiroki’s flying Sayuri to the tower and Sayuri’s dream-state, that if one wants to reconnect with that special someone who figuratively is in another dimension, one has to be willing to cross distances (of time, space, one’s own feelings) as well as face the “tower”… and even then, the past is still in a way lost and much effort is needed to rebuild.
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