Like many anime fans, I have ended up watching the films of Makoto Shinkai in something approaching reverse order, investigating his earlier work after his more recent triumphs. This is not an ideal way to experience a body of work. For the most part his earlier work does not disappoint, but this is his first full-length feature film from 2004 and it doesn’t come close to reaching the standard of his later work.
Having said that, the one thing that indicates clearly that Shinkai was going to be one to watch is the visuals. It’s not quite as breathtaking as much of his later work, but the animation is still strikingly beautiful. What’s lacking, though, is the story and the characterisation, which is all a bit of a mess.
This film was originally conceived as a much shorter feature, with a lot of the sci-fi elements added in later. That really shows, because there are elements here that have little effect on the main storyline. Instead of adding in extra sci-fi stuff, it would have been better for the relationship between the three main protagonists to be explored in more detail, as they fail to be in any way memorable and are not really distinctive characters.
The story takes place in an alternate version of Japan, with Hokkaido occupied by “the Union” since 1974. At this point a mysterious tower was built, stretching up far into the sky. It looks like an impossible work of architecture to me, so impossibly tall and thin that it would surely be brought down by the gentlest breeze or collapse under its own weight. From a distance it appears as a thin line, dividing the horizon. It’s so impossibly tall that the top appears to curve into the sky. But it does make for an amazing visual, and forms the backdrop to the story of Hiroki’s childhood. Along with his best friend Takuya, he is working on repairing a crashed plane. Completing the group of three friends is his love interest Sayuri, who is actually the best character in the film because she comes across as such a free spirit. The three of them have a dream to fly to the mysterious tower one day. Before they can do that, Sayuri mysteriously disappears during the summer, and Hiroki and Takuya end up drifting apart when their lives go down different paths, their dream abandoned.
The one thing really lacking here is the way Shinkai establishes the relationship between Hiroki and Sayuri, which is undeniably cute, but lacks the convincing, all-encompassing love of some of the relationships in his later films. This is a problem when the denouement relies so heavily on their love, which only really felt like a teenage infatuation. A bigger problem is that between the scenes of their childhood, and the excellent climax to the film, everything just meanders along with all the near-irrelevant sci-fi stuff. It turns out that the tower is changing part of the landscape around it, substituting matter for the equivalent matter from parallel universes. It’s a fascinating idea, but little is done with it, other than endless scenes of scientists looking at screens. The clever bit is the connection between Sayuri and the tower, when we eventually find out what happened to her.
So the pacing is all off, but when we get to the truth of Sayuri’s predicament and the big climax with Hiroki determined to fulfil his childhood promise, the film really springs to life in its final minutes. These are the beginnings of Shinkai’s fascination with the love of two individuals vs the greater good. If you’re a fan of Shinkai’s work, you won’t want to miss this one, but don’t go into it expecting a genius to arrive fully formed.
This might be Shinkai’s first feature film, but it’s far from being his first animation work altogether. Paired with The Place Promised in Our Early Days on the same DVD set is one of his earliest efforts, a short film called Voices of a Distant Star, which predates this one by a couple of years. We will look at that next week. RP
Read next in the Junkyard… Voices of a Distant Star