For all its post-WWII and science fiction elements, The Place Promised in Our Early Days is basically another story about lasting friendship and keeping promises, and I must admit that I'm a little tired of them.
Hiroki Fujisawa and Takuya Shirakawa are a pair of very capable ninth graders. They spend their time after school working a part-time job in order to buy parts for this airplane they're building. They hope to fly it across the Tsugaru Strait to Hokkaido, where a mysterious tower stands, dominating the sky. The tower is an enigma. It is a part of their landscape, their world, and they see it every day, but its purpose completely unknown. The boys eventually let a girl named Sayuri Sawatari in on their plans, and in the summer, they promise each other that they'll fly to the tower together. Then three years happen.
Hiroki's narration sets the mood for the film -- it is sober, despite the innocence of its opening scenes. The alternate history is established along with a sense of normalcy; the tower is nothing out of the ordinary because it is something that has always been there. And yet a sense of foreboding hangs over the characters from the very beginning and stems from the tower. It is an unnatural fixture on the horizon, looming over them like an obvious metaphor. There seems to be a lot of longing in Hiroki's voice as he describes the summer days, and he is reflecting back with a heavy sense of nostalgia.
And yet the days roll by rather lazily, and the story creeps forward slowly. Eventually, we are faced with the timeskip and Hiroki does not seem terribly eager to fill the viewer in with what transpired in those three years.
Not surprisingly, Place Promised reminded me a lot of 5 Centimeters per Second. Having only watched these two titles, it may be presumptuous of me to guess that the similarities I observed probably reflect the similarities in all of Makoto Shinkai's movies. But many creators do spend their entire careers creating and recreating the same story over and over again, so I don't think I'm that far off. The heavy emphasis on the importance and depth of mundane moments is the same. The bond between Hiroki, Takuya, and Sayuri is expressed best in scenes passing in silence. They are three kids watching the world pass by while standing next to each other, and that's all they need.
It's romanticist poetry to be sure, but after a while, I start to crave more actual depth. As characters, the trio is rather forgettable, and their relationships with one another are incredibly superficial. They don't seem to actually have much in common aside from their mutual fixation on the tower's mysteries, unless an apparent lack of interest in everything else counts. They spend a lot of time together, but I fail to see how their friendship is strong and special enough to warrant Hiroki closing himself off emotionally when it ends. I am not convinced. Everything is hinged on their promise to visit the tower. Even as the goal and center of the movie, am I wrong to think that friendship should mean more than just one promise? Do they have anything at all without that promise?
On the positive side, the alternate post-WWII history is interesting and portrayed well in that they aren't particularly explicit about anything. You have to infer most details, which makes it feel more realistic than if they dropped a lot of overt expository on you. Similarly, they don't go into a lot of detail with the technology involved in the tower and related things, and a lot is left up to the viewer's imagination. I always feel this works out a lot better than if they try too hard to sound legitimate and inject too much pseudoscience, since that only invites people to pick at exactly why it could never actually work.
And then there are the backgrounds. Once again, Shinkai's backgrounds are breathtaking to the point of being a huge distraction. The vastness of the skies and the beauty of the clouds does wonderfully to illustrate the distance between the characters and their quarry. The tower is a hazy structure in the distance, always there, but impossible to reach out and touch. There are many, many shots that emphasize this vastness, and the brilliance is highlighted further with the vibrant colors of sunset. Seriously, I'm pretty sure 85% of the scenes in Place Promised took place during sunset just so everything could be colored pink and purple and yellow and glorious, glorious gold.
There are more than just skies though. All the backgrounds are equally astounding: the classroom interior (with the sunset spilling in through the window), the hanger and the factory (with the sunset casting shadows from the openings in the roof), the train platform (with the sunset glazing over the surrounding fields), the sea (with the sunset shining over the glistening horizon), and the city (with the sunset peaking in between the skyscrapers). The details in everyday objects, in the road signs and lamp posts, is given every bit as much attention. Meanwhile, the characters remain plain, simple, and dull. Character designs are often sacrificed for gorgeous backgrounds, but Shinkai takes this to the absolute extreme. Placed in such stunning environments, who wants to pay attention to the characters at all? Especially when they spend so many moments lapsed into silence, also entranced by their surroundings?
The movie finally picks up in its final moments and surprise me somewhat by managing to build enough uncertainty that I couldn't guess exactly what was going to happen. Sadly, the indifference I felt towards the characters did not dissipate at any point, even towards the end, and ultimately, I could not bring myself to really care. Their relationships remained contrived and insincere to me, and for a movie hinged on themes of friendship, that ruined everything.
The Place Promised in Our Early Days had a decent premise and a lot of potential. I don't doubt that there are a lot of people that can thoroughly enjoy this movie, but I am starting to think that perhaps Shinkai's storytelling style just isn't for me. There is too much importance placed on perceived depth and poignancy. Such things are great and very powerful in small doses, but when weight of the entire movie is dependent on something so inexplicit, it becomes too variable. Like 5 Centimeters per Second, I think personal sympathies are required to get the most out of the movie. The characters are made to be generic so you place yourself in their shoes and project and invest your personal relationships onto the characters -- the depth of your real, specific relationships becomes the depth of the characters' relationships, but if you're unable to make this personal connection to begin with, then you will get very little out of the rest of the movie. Aside from pretty backgrounds.