Had I seen Japanese animator Makoto Shinkai’s three available features (The Place Promised in Our Early Days, Voices of a Distant Star, and 5 Centimeters Per Second) in order, the evolution of his work would have felt like natural progression. 5 Centimeters Per Second is a breathtaking masterpiece of human emotions on par with anything Miyazaki’s done this side of Spirited Away. By contrast, his earlier work oozes potential, but lacks the narrative cohesiveness to be truly great. The Place Promised in Our Early Days, Shinkai’s second film—and first full-length picture; Voices of a Distant Star is just 32 minutes long—is certainly an impressive debut. It contains a good deal to be proud of, including frequently dazzling vibrant color schemes and a deep understanding of core emotions that portends greatness down the road (and indeed, 5 Centimeters Per Second plays like a mix of Spirited Away and Before Sunset; shocking that I love it, I know!). But, overambition ultimately keeps The Place Promised in Our Early Days from being more than a promising initial foray into greatness.
The Place Promised in Our Early Days begins strongly, with 25 minutes of graceful interaction between the three teenage protagonists (two boys, Hiroki and Takuya, and one girl, Sayuri). It initially appears that the film will be a tender meditation on how youthful promises can gradually fade from relevance as the years go by, with an anti-war backdrop (Japan is on the verge of splitting into two countries, Korea style). Had it continued along this path, The Place Promised in Our Early Days may well have been a great movie, as Shinkai shows no jitters for a first-time filmmaker—the quiet, heartfelt discussions, particularly Hiroki’s monologues, are spot-on.
Unfortunately, Shinkai elects to sharply focus on the impending war and a surreal, alternate universe angle in which Sayuri’s future and life hang in the balance. While I give Shinkai props for creativity, his execution of the sci-fi-esque angles lags considerably behind the character development. The Place Promised in Our Early Days rapidly becomes muddled, and shifts between storylines too quickly without appropriate warning. While the final five minutes get back on track from an emotional perspective, I can’t help but think that this would have been a much more dynamic, memorable film had Shinkai not bitten off so much for his opening act. Luckily, he clearly learned from his rookie hiccups (though Voices of a Distant Star suffers from many of the same strengths and weaknesses), as 5 Centimeters Per Second strips away the backdrops and focuses much more forcefully on the soul with astonishing results. I suspect that in 20 years, film buffs worldwide will be pointing to The Place Promised in Our Early Days as the introductory work from one of cinema’s first-rate directors.