Reviewby Theron Martin,
The Place Promised in Our Early Days
In a world where Hokkaido separated from mainland Japan in the early '70s and formed and independent nation called The Union, middle school friends Hiroki and Takuya share two common interests: a girl named Sayuri and a plan to build a plane to fly to the mysterious tower they can see across the straits in Enzo (aka Hokkaido). Both pledge to fly there with Sayuri one day, but time and circumstances separate the trio before the plane can be finished. Years later, with war looming on the horizon, their paths cross again as the two boys learn that Sayuri has been asleep for years and cannot wake. Somehow her condition is connected to the mysterious tower and interaction with parallel universes, but in her dreams Sayuri awaits for an old promise to be fulfilled—and holds the key to the world's salvation.
In 2002 Makoto Shinkai made waves in the anime world by almost single-handedly making the widely-respected and much-beloved OVA Voices of a Distant Star. Ever since its release, fans have waited eagerly to see what Shinkai might come up with given a proper budget and full staff. The 85-minute Place Promised in Our Early Days, Shinkai's first foray into feature-length animation, is his answer to the speculation, and it is an impressive one. Though on the surface it is a gentle, low-key tale about trying to fulfill a promise made in youth that was set aside as time passed, its underlying theme is the same as for Voices: coping with loneliness and separation from loved ones. (One has to wonder what this says about Shinkai's teenage personal life, but I digress.) This time around the communication device is dreams of parallel universes rather than ultra-long-range cell phones, but the structure of people who were once close reaching out for each other despite the vastness which separates them is intact. In fact, one could look at Place Promised as just the full-length version of what Shinkai was doing in Voices.
Although it is not the one-man job that Voices was, Shinkai's involvement in this project is as thoroughly pervasive as you will ever see in a feature-length animated production. He had his hand in nearly every aspect of the production except character design, and his name appears in the credits at least 17 times to prove that. Because of this, he leaves such an indelible stamp on Place Promised that no one who sees this movie who has also seen Voices will fail to recognize it as the work of the same man. The only other anime-related person I can think of who so clearly leaves his mark on his projects is Hayao Miyazaki. Is Shinkai on that same level? He doesn't have enough of a body of work behind him yet to establish that, but he's headed in the right direction.
Shinkai's writing is at its best when dealing with the character interactions and internal ruminations which form a major portion of the story. He also excels at painting the broad picture of where he is going with his topic. This time around he mostly avoids the use of action scenes, keeping the story pure to its characters and crafting a gently-flowing, unadulterated drama which alternates back and forth between present day and three years past. His writing does show some vulnerability in plotting, as several story aspects don't make much sense if one thinks about them at all. (What does The Union expect to gain from what it's doing with its tower, for instance? And wouldn't the sleeping Sayuri be held under much tighter security and surveillance given how important she supposedly is?) For as much emphasis as is placed on parallel/branch universes, the writing also fails to explain how an area which has been overwritten with space from a parallel universe would behave compared to our own. This might be forgiven as being unimportant to the story if some of the characters didn't have to pass through such a space at one point. These are only minor flaws in a story that is otherwise very well-written, however, and Shinkai does add in a few nice detail touches, such as the Patient Transfer Request form which labels Sayuri's problem as “narcolepsy.” One also has to pay very close attention to catch a couple of critical plot points. (Helpful Hint: Note any dates that are offered for important events, whether spoken or written.)
The CG-based background artistry is incredible. This is cutting-edge artistic work which produces a plethora of beautifully detailed scenes. Most impressive are the breathtakingly gorgeous sunsets, an artistic theme which Shinkai uses repeatedly throughout the movie, and with good reason; I have not seen any animation, either anime or American-made, which is the equal of Place Promised in depicting such scenes. The Bella Ciela, the plane being constructed by Hiroki and Takuya, is also well-designed, and Shinkai infuses the production with many spectacular lighting effects which can normally be caught on live-action film but are extremely rare to see done effectively in animation. Also keep an eye out for other small but sharp details, like light flashing very briefly off a bracelet worn under a lab coat sleeve. Thankfully Shinkai teamed up with up-and-coming artist Ushio Tazawa for the character designs. Tazawa does some respectable work in his first job as designer, producing reasonably appealing character designs that aren't quite at the quality level of the background artistry but are still a distinct improvement over what was seen in Voices. Most notable in his work is the effective way he ages the central characters over the movie's three-year time gap; the changes are subtle but realistic.
The heavily CG-supported animation is smooth and well-executed, especially in flight scenes, with one major exception: for some reason they can't seem to animate Sayuri right. She looks very awkward and unnatural in a couple of scenes where she is shown running, and a couple of other brief shots where she is talking to the boys look very jerky. While shortcuts aren't exactly taken with the artistry and animation, Shinkai has a habit of shooting scenes at a distance or at angles where the characters can't be seen speaking. This is made up for by significant use of background animation and excellent detail on two characters playing the violin in synch with the music. Shinkai also uses several scenes where characters can be seen talking but can't be heard.
The musical scoring uses a mixture of string quartet numbers and piano-based themes heavily reminiscent of Voices, which shouldn't be surprising since Tenmon, the individual responsible for scoring Voices, also worked with Shinkai on this project. These themes are very effective at supporting and reinforcing the moods of the scenes. The melancholy violin melody used on two different occasions is also a nice touch, and the ending theme song, whose lyrics were written by Shinkai, is beautifully performed. The sound engineering is also very good, especially on the menu screens.
Fans who lambasted ADV (unfairly, in my opinion) for playing fast and loose with the English script for Voices will be happy to know that it stays very tight to the subtitles this time around. ADV also got the subtitling of on-screen text in the English dub right this time, something which was sorely lacking in Voices. A good job is done of matching English VAs to their roles and the original performances, and most roles are performed capably. The notable exception is the brief roles of the NSA Officer and U.S. Military Officer, the two roles voiced in English (with Japanese subtitles) in the Japanese dub, which were recast and performed decidedly better in the English dub. All-in-all, it is a good but not outstanding dub, the kind that should satisfy dub fans and those “on the wall” but is unlikely to win over purists.
The extras for Place Promised are meaty. In addition to company previews and three different versions of the Japanese trailers, four interviews are included. The longest (at nearly 13 minutes) and most insightful interview is with Makoto Shinkai, who elaborates on his approach to his first cooperative project, what he tried to convey through his writing and images, and his efforts to make a deeply meaningful last line. Of special interest are comparisons between several real-life model scenes and their animated equivalents, which show off exactly how impressively detailed the artistry is in this movie. Also of particular interest is Shinkai's explanation for his emphasis on background art: scenery always fascinated him as a kid, so a prime goal of his was to carry that fascination through into his work. The other three interviews, at an average length of 11 minutes, each focus on one of the seiyuu for the three lead roles. Most interesting is the one with Yuuka Nanri, who voices Sayuri. She might be best-known previously for her voice work in Gunslinger Girls (as Henrietta) or serving as lead vocalist for FictionJunction YUUKA, the group which performed the theme songs for Madlax. As Shinkai himself commented in his interview, she practically is Sayuri, and a real cutie, too. The DVD insert and inside cover include some impressive examples of Shinkai's artwork and poetry-styled writings about the plot and feelings of the characters.
Place Promised does not have quite the emotional appeal that Voices did (though its ending may still leave some viewers in tears), and is not quite in league with the true anime classics, but it is still a visually impressive and highly sentimental tale which speaks to the promises that most people made during their youth which they have been unable to keep over the years. It is the best animated movie released in America through the first seven months of 2005, and since it has had a (very) limited theatrical release it is more deserving of a nomination for 2005's Academy Award for Best Animated Film than Howl's Moving Castle. It remains to be seen whether enough voting members of the Academy will be aware of it to properly reward its quality, however. (ADV, make sure you promote it for that award!) It reaffirms Makoto Shinkai's status as one of Japan's most gifted and promising young animators and rates as a worthy view for any anime fan who can appreciate gentle dramatic stories.
Overall (dub) : A-
Overall (sub) : A-
Story : A-
Animation : A-
Art : A
Music : A-
+ Top-rate background artistry, excellent sound and musical scoring.
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