Thanks to the disproportionate popularity and public awareness of programs like Dragon Ball Z, Gundam, Bleach, and Naruto, anime has developed a reputation of being nothing more than children’s programming where super heroes and robots use martial arts, explosions, and more sheer determination than you can shake a stick at to save the world from nondescript threats. How many people have been dis-swayed from watching a Hiyao Miyazaki film because they think all anime is the same, even if, in reality, Miyazaki makes some of the most beautiful children film’s this side of Pixar? How many people refuse to watch Cowboy Bebop, the best space western/space noir prior to Firefly, because they don’t think anime is actually capable of being artistically significant? The answer is far too many people. While even I enjoy the occasional action based anime like Gurren Lagann or Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, it’s the wide variety of the genre that really draws me in. Following an unconventional coming-of-age tale with a heavy lean towards science fiction, 2004’s The Place Promised in Our Early Days is another anime feature film that completely defies genre expectations while simultaneously providing an interesting (if perhaps too complex and confusing) tale to entertain the audience.
Set in an alternate Earth history where Japan was split into two after the second World War, with Japan controlling half the country and the United States the other half, The Place Promised in Our Early Days is a personal and emotional tale of friendship, love, and the forces that keep us apart. Set in the late 1990’s of this alternate timeline, we are introduced to Takuya and Hiroki, two young Japanese middle-schoolers that discover a downed drone aircraft and decide to rebuild it, in order to reach a nearly infinitely tall tower that grows in the American section of Japan. The boys befriend a strange girl named Sayuri (who may or may not have visions of the future) and together, the trio spend the summer working on their plane and being happy children. However, one day, Sayuri mysteriously disappears, and for three years, the boys not only hear from Sayuri, they grow apart from each other. Takuya becomes a scientist for the government while Hiroki remains in high school. Suddenly, the possible presence of Sayuri, the beginning of World War III, and other forces begin to draw Hiroki and Takuya back together so they can save Sayuri and possibly the world.
Before I get into some of the areas where I felt this film stumbled (which were unfortunately numerous), let me talk about some of the things I loved. First, the artwork in this film was absolutely gorgeous. You would be forgiven if you thought you had stepped onto the set of a Hiyao Miyazaki film or any other Studio Ghibli production. The artwork is that good. There aren’t a ton of different animations in the film. Instead the strength of the art relies on the absurdly gorgeous landscapes. The attention to detail is just astounding, and there were times when I would just want to pause the movie and appreciate the rolling hillsides or beautiful sunsets. This was one of the prettiest animes to look at that I’ve seen in a while. Similarly, the characters themselves are quite expressive and while they look like your traditional anime school children, there’s something about the way they’re drawn that lends the character styles something indescribably unique.
Also (and this is a compliment), you could also be mistaken that Hideaki Anno had taken a break during Neon Genesis Evangelion to write something a little more uplifting and positive that still bears his trademark of deep and never-ending personal angst and ennui. A significant portion of this film consists of narration by Hiroki describing his deep depression and anxiety in the years since he lost contact with Sayuri, who he loved. Similarly, Sayuri (who for fear of spoiling the film’s science fiction conceits) delivers her fair share of emotionally laden monologues against a gorgeous but desolate dreamscape that could have stepped out of a film David Lynch made for children, but he also made the conscious decision to keep making things strange as hell. Alongside Neon Genesis Evangelion, this was definitely one of the most intensely psychological anime I’ve ever watched, though over the course of the film’s 90 minute running time, I did find myself wishing for more time to spend getting to know these characters who were still frustratingly ill-defined at the film’s end.
However, the actual plot of the film (as opposed to the deep characterization of its protagonists) was vague and sort of confusing at best and intentionally unclear at worst. I’m willing to attribute part of this problem to the manner in which I saw this film which was on my Instant Queue on Netflix. I watched the English dub, and I’m willing to bet that something was lost in the localization and that the Japanese text which popped up occasionally in scene transitions (and the scenes themselves at times) which wasn’t subtitled at all caused me to lose some of the story. However, I also think that at the film’s core there was simply a science fiction story which meshed in an incredibly uncomfortable with the otherwise painfully realistic coming of age tale that was the beating heart of the film. The film doesn’t resolve a lot of the sci-fi technobabble that accompany some of its seemingly most important scenes. Similarly, the ending is exceptionally vague and confusing, and I’m still completely unsure as to what really happened there. It’s as if I loved half of the film’s plot and equally loathed the other half.
My other major problem with the film was the really bad voice acting in the English dub, with the exception of Hiroki’s voice actor. Takuya sounded like he was in his mid-40’s (as opposed to being a middle/high schooler), and Sayuri embodied virtually every high-pitched/obnoxiously feminine quality I despise in female anime voice acting (Faye Valentine is legitimately the only great female voice in all of anime). I can’t really blame the movie for that too much because anything outside of Studio Gainax or Cowboy Bebop has this problem in spades. It’s endemic of the whole anime industry. I love Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood (it’s my second favorite anime ever), but I’m physically incapable of watching the English dub because the voice acting is so awful (save Ed). Hiroki’s voice actor was great though and really sold all of his personal anguish and depression. It was heart-breaking to listen to his little speeches because they felt so real and personal. It was a very intimate performance.
One last positive note before I end my extended ramblings on this film. The soundtrack is hauntingly gorgeous. There are two moments where the characters play violins that will stay with me for a long while, and the whole film is filled with beautiful musical moments like these. All in all, this is a movie made for those grown-ups like myself who hate having to defend their love of anime to uninformed individuals who don’t get just how much the genre has to offer. Even if you’re not a fan of anime but like psychological coming-of-age stories, I can also recommend this beautifully intimate tale (though the sci-fi story tacked on drags that whole production down). It’s not perfect, and while it wasn’t the masterpiece you’d seem come from Studio Ghibli, it is the definition of scenery porn as anyone with the slightest appreciation of art will probably eat up every scene and the core story of friendship is achingly tender. It has deep flaws, but the parts that work more than make up for the rest.
Final Score: B+