By Eija Niskanen.
Makoto Shinkai has built a notable career as a central figure of the post-Ghibli generation of anime directors. The difference is that Shinkai was not initially connected with any single studio name, but has built his profile by working alternatively alone, and later with a few other colleagues, mostly composer Tenmon. His favorite anime is Castle in the Sky by Hayao Miyazaki, and many reviewers have noted the Miyazaki-type of elements in Shinkai’s work. In his early feature The Place Promised in Our Early Days, such influences might be seen in the quirky airplane the protagonists build in order to reach the mysterious Ezo Tower. Another well-known reference to previous masters is the poem read out in the film’s opening – it is by Kenji Miyazawa, author of Night Train to the Stars and The Life of Budori Gusuko.
Alternative Japanese post-war history has been the setting for several anime films, including the acclaimed Jin-Roh. In Place Promised, the setting is formed with reference to WWII, with a Japan that has been divided into two parts, with the main island Honshu and other southern-parts belonging to the U.S. zone and the northern-most island Hokkaido, here given its archaic name of Ezo, being part of the never-quite-spelled-out coalition called the Union, perhaps referring to a Soviet bloc.
It is the late 1990s and the three teenage protagonists, two boys Hiroki and Takuya and the girl Sayuri, live out their high school days in Aomori, the most northern part of the U.S. zone of Japan. Over the Tsugaru Strait they can see Ezo and a mysterious tower rising up to the sky. The tower has been there since 1974 for a purpose not known on this side of the divide. For the three youngsters, this tower symbolizes something unreachable, a dream, a future possibility, and they make a promise to go there some day. Soon, however, Sayuri, however, develops narcolepsy and is taken to Tokyo for hospital treatment.
Three years pass and the two sectors are on the brink of war. Hiroki is now in Tokyo, working for the U.S. Coalition government for a research project on parallel worlds that are somehow linked to the Ezo tower. He finds out that Sayuri is in a coma and contacts Takuya for help. Somehow Sayuri’s problems are also linked to the Ezo tower and Takuya and Hiroki start planning a way to save Sayuri, which would involve rebuilding a crashed airplane called the Bella Cielo (the Italian name being another nod to Ghibli). Takuya has gotten involved with the underground Uilta Liberation Army, and is promised a trip to Ezo with the group.
Nostalgia for teenage days, a constant theme in Japanese anime and live films gets a beautiful realisation in Makoto Shinkai’s hands. The anime actually features a double nostalgia: for Hiroki, Takuya and Sayuri to their schooldays of the beginning part of the film and for the viewer for the beautiful young idealism, the promise to be kept, and the deep friendship and youthful first love amongst the protagonists. These themes get a wonderful visual realization with the depiction of Aomori scenery, during happy school days bathed in a beautiful evening light, and the later ones getting a more sinister threatening tone with the possibility of another war. The ending song “Kimi no Koe” by Ai Kawashima wraps up the emotional nuances of the story.