Promises to Keep
In Makoto Shinkai's re-imaging of sleeping beauty The Place Promised in Our Early Days, the characters have miles to go before they sleep.
In 2002, Shinkai Makoto created Voices of a Distant Star, a thirty minute sci-fi romance about a middle school student who goes off to fight aliens while her boyfriend stays on the Earth. Not only did Makoto write the script and do the voice acting, along with his fiancée, he animated it entirely by himself on his computer. Disregarding its technical achievements, Voices of a Distant Star is a very effecting love story that spans several years and galaxies. It stuck a cord with many anime fans who were looking for something different. After its release, Shinkai Makoto went from being virtually unknown to gathering a following in the anime community. Many were eager to see what Makoto would do next.
It would be a while before they found out. Makoto set out to do a full-length film. Tenmom, who did the music for Voices of a Distant Star, returned as composer, while Ushio Tazawa took over the role of character designer from Makoto, as well as many of the animation duties. As the project grew, so did the amount of staff working on it. By the time that the OVA was finished three years later, the number of people working on it had ballooned to over a hundred.
The adage about there being strength in numbers proved true when the anime, Kumo no Mukou, Yakusoku no Basho premiered (roughly translated as The Place of Promise, Beyond the Clouds or The Place Promised in Our Early Days as ADV has chosen for its U.S. release). The OVA is quite simply a technical masterpiece. All of the wrinkles from Voices of a Distant Star have been ironed out: the character designs are much more attractive and the CGI blends perfectly with the 2-D animation. Watching it, you could never tell it was a small studio effort. Even in inactive scenes, the animators will show the characters fidgeting or some background movement rather then using stills. The backgrounds are lush and detailed. Even though the setting is a dreary, alternative Japan, it's hard not to marvel at how beautiful it is. Then you remember that it was all done by a relatively small group of individuals, and the visuals become even more impressive.
While the animation was a group effort, the story and direction were all Makoto. The story takes place in post-WWII Japan in a universe slightly different from our own. In that world, Japan was divided into two countries after the war: The Union and an American-occupied Japan. Hiroki and Takuya are two junior high school students who live in a small town not to far from their neighboring country, the Union. From their hometown an impossibly huge tower built on the Union side of the border is always visible. The two best friends are determined to go there some day and find out the tower's mysterious purpose. They spend most of their spare time at a local garage building a plane that will take them there.
One day, Takuya brings a classmate, Sayuri, to the hanger. She too dreams of going to the tower, and the two boys promise to take her there when they finish the plane. The promise cements a friendship between the three students.
When Sayuri leaves town without saying a word to either Takuya or Hiroki, it looks as though the promise will go unfulfilled. The two boys give up working on the plane and drift apart when they enter different high schools.
While still a high school student, Takuya gets accepted into a government research facility studying parallel worlds. At his job, he can bury himself in his work and forget about his broken promise to Sayuri. Takuya also gets involved with a radical group who wish to bring back together the two countries, even if it means starting a war between them.
Hiroki goes to school in Tokyo where he feels alone in the huge city. Though surrounded by millions and millions of people, he feels no connection to any of them. He often thinks of Sayuri and wonders what happened to her.
Unknown to the boys, Sayuri lays unconscious in a hospital. She has a mysterious sleeping disorder that's kept her in a coma for the last few years. As tensions increase between The Union and American-occupied Japan, Hiroki and Takuya team up once again to find out what Sayuri, Takuya's research, and the tower have in common.
The story mixes together the classic fairy tale of Sleeping Beauty with science and politics, but the mixture simmers rather then comes to a boil. The film is mostly concerned with following the two male leads as they grow up into two very different people. Takuya becomes more aware of the world outside his hometown and looks at the big picture, seeing himself as just a small part of everything that is going on. Meanwhile, Hiroki looks inward and tries to find meaning in life on a more personal level, especially through his relationship with Sayuri. Eventually the two young men, with their alternative points of view, must choose between saving the world or saving the one that they love.
In a way, Voices of a Distant Star has an advantage over The Place Promised in Our Early Days because of its short running time. At thirty minutes, there is no time for any unimportant characters or sub-plots. The Place Promised in Our Early Days also shows Shinkai Makoto's straightforward story-telling and ability to cut out any excess information not crucial to the story, but the OVA, clocking in at an hour and an half, lags in some parts. At least during the slow moments there's the beautiful animation to behold.
There's also great music to listen to. The extreme emotions that The Place Promised in Our Early Days (and Voices of a Distant Star as well) conjure up in its viewer is largely due to Tenmom's music. With a classical score that fits into the story (Sayuri, and later Hiroki, play the violin) it's easy to get swept away with the movie. The ending song wonderfully caps off the film, with lyrics that actually make sense in the context of the story, probably because while Tenmom composed the song, Shinkai Makoto was writing the lyrics.
Despite its somewhat languid pace, The Place Promised in Our Early Days is a great pay-off for those who have been eagerly awaiting Shinkai Makoto's latest work.