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.
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.
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.
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.