Japanese director Makoto Shinkai is being called the "new Miyazaki," and his first feature-length anime gives some traction to the claim. His latest film, The Place Promised in Our Early Days (2004), won two awards in Japan and has just been released on DVD in America. While typical science fiction anime has giant robots, space battleships, or Blade Runner riffs, The Place Promised stands out as a rare example of what I call "true" SF anime, and because of that I recommend it for people who normally donít like anime.
The Place Promised is Shinkai's third project. The first was She and Her Cat (1999), a five-minute, black and white animation that he made on a Macintosh computer. The film, though simple, is an intensely poignant tale of a single woman and her pet, and won a few awards. Next came Voices of a Distant Star (2003), 25 minutes of vivid color animation about a schoolgirl who goes off to war among the stars and the effects of the e-mail time lag on the boyfriend she leaves behind. Again, the animation was done entirely by Shinkai on a Mac, and it is evident in the DVD bonus interview that he was exhausted by it. The Place Promised is the first time he has used a real team.
The 90-minute story is set in northern Honshu, the main island of Japan, within an alternate history where the Soviets occupied Hokkaido, the northern island of Japan, at the end of World War II. It is 1996 and two boys in junior high school are keenly interested in the enigmatic tower built by the "Union" in now-foreign Hokkaido. The world wonders if the tower is a scientific device, or a weapon, or perhaps both. The boys want to see it up close, but the border has been closed for decades, and so they work at building their own airplane to fly across the strait and back again.
The other shared interest the best friends have is Sayuri Sawatari, a girl in their class. She slips into their confidence, learns about their secret project, and is so enthusiastic that they promise to take her along when they fly.
But then suddenly Sayuri moves away without a word. Three years go by, and the desire for Japanese Reunification propels America and the Union toward a possibly apocalyptic war while the boys, embittered, drift apart. One boy works in a government lab dedicated to solving the mystery of the tower, and he begins to use smuggled Union science; the other boy is haunted by the memory of the girl who disappeared from their lives, and the unfulfilled promise. The girl herself, meanwhile, is in a hospital, trapped in a quasi-dream state that is somehow linked to the tower's secret activation.
Shinkai's movie resembles the work of Miyazaki at several points: the backgrounds are beautifully detailed, revealing the wondrous beauty in everything around us, from a field of grass on a summer's day to the play of reflected light on the ceiling of a moving train car. There is also a strong emotional current connecting the landscape to the characters, creating a sense of how time and place and character all come together — a nostalgia for the real as well as a longing for places that never existed. Miyazaki and Shinkai also share a certain interest in unusual aircraft. On the other hand, Miyazaki's bustling optimism and orientation toward action is quite different from Shinkai's haunting sadness and melancholic endurance.
The Place Promised has a haunting sense of familiarity, which feeds into a latent nostalgia for the Cold War era: the country is divided, as Germany once was and Korea remains, with reunification seeming almost certain to be apocalyptic; the tower is a souped-up cross between the Berlin Wall (an architectural monument built in 1961) and Sputnik (a scientific/military marvel launched in 1957); the plan of the boys to fly a home-built plane into forbidden territory recalls the time in 1987 when West German teenager Mathias Rust flew a small plane from Helsinki to Red Square in Moscow, through the tightest airspace in the world; the year 1999 reminds us of the millennialism, adding to the sense of potential apocalypse.
Added to the pedigree of The Place Promised is a strong evocation of the "hard SF" anime milestone, Wings of Honneamise (1987), the anime feature about a "royal space force" that goes from being a joke to launching their world's first manned rocket. Without giving away key plot points the two movies share, it is enough to say that every time a jet plane flew overhead in The Place Promised I was reminded of the opening scene of Wings. And whenever the boys worked on their airplane, it was depicted with the same sort of loving detail and hobbyist energy found with the team of misfits building their rocket. Wings also has a dollop of that haunting sadness. Wings was the first anime from Gainax, a company which has had a long string of successes since then, including the series GunBuster (1988 — 89) about a schoolgirl sent to war among the stars (the likely inspiration for Shinkai's Voices of a Distant Star).
The Place Promised is a beautiful movie. Sentimental and multi-layered, it rewards multiple viewing but is not so complex that one cannot comprehend it the first time.