The Place Promised In Our Early Days [雲のむこう、約束の場所, Kumo no Mukou, Yakusoku no Basho] (2004)
AKA Beyond the Clouds, The Promised Place

Starring Hidetaka Yoshioka, Masato Hagiwara, Yuuka Nanri, Kazuhiko Inoue, Risa Mizuno, Unshou Ishizuka

Directed by Makoto Shinkai

Even after watching Shinkai’s earlier short, Voices of a Distant Star, I never expected this film to be science fiction. The posters, promotional art, and even the visuals of the film itself all seem like an everyday setting without anything bizarre. I did expect the same emotional focus that Voices had, and it certainly delivers on that front. For the first few minutes of the movie, my expectations held true. The main character, Hiroki, narrates the opening, looking back at his high school days when he shared two things with his best friend, Takuya. The first was a crush on the same girl in their class, Sayuri. But when he gets to their second common interest, I realized this film was not going quite where I had expected.

Their shared dream was to build a plane that would take them across the border, to the massive tower of Ezo which stretches up into the sky and out of sight. It’s a tower so tall that until the climactic reveal at the end of the film you never see the top. It stretches up like the Tower of Babel, and even in faraway Tokyo the tower can be seen, still looming above everything. It’s a symbol of the characters’ aspirations, and a reminder of the dreams they never realized. Beyond simple symbolism, the tower is also a science lab to research alternate realities; that was when I realized this wasn’t just a love story. It is every bit as fantastical as Voices, taking a scientific concept and combining it with very human emotions to tell an intriguing story.

Unfortunately, it gets off to a jerky start which keeps it from living up to its full potential. At first the jumping back and forth from flashbacks to present day leaves you uncertain who the characters are and what has happened to them over the years. Once you settle in and can recognize the main characters, though, everything smooths out. It also helps that the sci-fi aspect creeps further and further into the foreground. It starts off almost normal, but as the story advances, the tower and Sayuri’s prophetic dreams become more prominent, until the whole story revolves around them while the ever-increasing likelihood of war keeps the tension up.

The flashbacks continue through the entire film. They aren’t just a way to explain the backstory, but are a central aspect to the plot and the characters. Combined with such a strong focus on the characters’ emotions, there is an overwhelming feel of nostalgia to Early Days, which should be apparent from the title alone. Because of this, it walks a fine line between drama and melodrama. For some, this will be a bad thing, but for me it hit the sweet spot of making the emotions tense without slipping too far into sappy sentimentality. There were a few moments where it drifted a little too close to teen, angsty drivel, but it kept itself in line. Again, this is mostly a problem toward the beginning of the film, and as the plot intensifies with world-shaking potential those strong emotions feel more justified and appropriate to the situations.

That nostalgic tone is strongest in the visual style, which is one of the film’s most striking aspects. The animation itself isn’t the star of the show here. It’s actually pretty average and sprinkled with more CG than I was comfortable with. But Shinkai comes from an indie film background, and he knows how to shore up animation with the backgrounds. If you ever thought backgrounds played second fiddle to the animation, this film will show you just how wrong you are. It proves undeniably that a gorgeous background can tie together mediocre animation and make the whole film look great. I noticed this in Voices of a Distant Star as well, but here the backgrounds are so stunning that it doesn’t just distract from the animation, but improves upon it.

Where it really shines, literally, is with its lighting effects. There is a heaping mountain of lens flare, enough that even I noticed it, and I didn’t even notice much in the 2009 Star Trek film. But that’s far from its only trick. Every shot in this film has carefully crafted lighting effects, giving it the glowing sheen of fond memories. The elegant use of light and shadow enhances the mood of even the most uninspiring locations. Everything from sunlight gleaming off a snowfield to the polished floor of a research lab reflecting the ceiling lights are elevated to works of art. The shadows of objects whizzing by on a train send light reflecting off every surface of the metal interior. Even a hole-in-the-wall ramen shop looks amazing thanks to just the right slant of light.

The shots of the sky are especially breathtaking, as they should be for a film that focuses on dreams of flight. The movie is filled with sunrises and sunsets that spread fields of pink and orange across the dark sky, with fluffy clouds streaking shadows across the screen. Maybe it’s just because I love big fluffy clouds, but Early Days had me captivated with its lush visuals. The spell was only broken by the obnoxious CG aircraft, which ruined it every time. But if you have more tolerance for CG in your anime than me (and it would be hard to have less) then you might find this one of the most beautiful anime out there.

I can see people finding the nostalgia and emotions too strongly emphasized here, but I think Shinkai came just short of a masterpiece, with its only true flaw being a confusing opening act. He’s got a brilliant sense of artistry and a knack for blending science fiction thoughtfulness with touching human relationships. After this, I’m really looking forward to seeing his next film. I know he’s got what it takes to make a superb film.