Written and directed by Makoto Shinkai
Spoilers: moderate (also discussed, Shinkai's early short films, 1999's "She and Her Cat" and 2002's "Voices of a Distant Star")
It could be argued that it is not fair to ask of Makoto Shinkai regarding his first feature film, The Place Promised In Our Early Days, "dude, why is it like this?" It is, after all, his first feature film, and we are looking at a 2004 effort with eyes that have beheld all the intervening years of his progress as a director, so it's obviously a bit shitty to ask why a movie that literally has the phrase "our early days" in its title isn't as good as Shinkai's extraordinary run of films starting with 2013's Garden of Words and continuing with his world-beating blockbusters, Your Name, Weathering With You, and Suzume, which are so good that in the aggregate they're the principal reason I say Japan has the best animation industry on Earth. So I will stake that, yes, it's unfair to hold the second decade of a man's filmography against his first, but maybe not quite as unfair as it might seem. In any case it's practically unavoidable: Shinkai's famous for repeating himself, and it's a cheap (but not inaccurate) shot to say that Suzume is a remake of Weathering With You and Weathering With You is a remake of Your Name, but because the first decade of Shinkai's filmography has had significantly less impact, it's easy to forget how long he's been repeating himself, and that Your Name, Weathering With You, and Suzume—all of them—are, after a fashion, themselves remakes of The Place Promised In Our Early Days. It is thus difficult to avoid being disappointed (and, thanks to flawless hindsight, even slightly perplexed) while watching something that is so demonstrably "a Makoto Shinkai film," with everything that entails, and realizing that, nevertheless, it kind of sucks. That's the unfair part. The fair part is that it doesn't suck just because it was his first feature, and the problems are so obvious you'd think they'd have been obvious even without hindsight.
It's not his first anything, of course. My understanding is that the manner in which Shinkai made his way into the anime industry was unconventional. An outsider working in the allied but not identical field of video games, in 1998 he left a calling card with his DIY bid for attention, a four-minute long "animated" short called "She and Her Cat."
(Above: "She and Her Cat.") (I mean, duh.)
It's a black-and-white doodle about how cats are good for depression and the loopy way in which they view the world, and he sold copies of it at conventions. Though quite nice, and in its way impressive, I don't think anybody should be too impressed by it, even given the substantial obstacles posed by the 1998 personal computing technology he used to make it—"making an impressionistic mood piece cartoon that's mostly story-reel-style kinestatic montage on your 1998 computer" is still, after all, "making a cartoon that's mostly story-reel-style kinestatic monstage." I don't believe it did impress people too unduly (look at that cat, would you be impressed if your pre-schooler drew that? cute though), but it was well-liked by those who saw it and garnered Shinkai a reputation, and this gave him the confidence to quit his job to devote himself fulltime to proving that he could make an actual cartoon, 2002's "Voices of a Distant Star," about three times as long and, in the light of two decades, startling in how much it immediately established the subject matters and emotions this filmmaker would be dealing with in basically every one of his films, namely feelings of loneliness and disconnection often literalized by a sci-fantasy conceit. (But then, "She and Her Cat" may startle you even more in this respect: the very first spoken line in a Shinkai film is 1)whispered voiceover narration that 2)is about rain, which if you know what his overriding stylistic concerns would turn out to be, sounds too good to be true.)
I don't like "Voices of a Distant Star" very much—I like it less than "She and Her Cat"—and there's a couple of reasons for this. There's the reason a lot of people are a little put off by it, which is that the character animation, which we could call "limited" if we wanted to be polite, or "awful" if we didn't, constantly belies the modesty of its creation, though the character design can't be excused even on that basis, it's so horrendous (the boy and the girl are distressingly-angular scribbles that resemble an attempt to, first, remember what Morty of Rick & Morty looks like and then to regender him, respectively). Subsequently, though he would continue to wear many hats on his films, Makoto Shinkai would not be a character designer or character animator, and this has been a good thing.
(Above: "Voices of a Distant Star.")
Anyway, there's also the pettier but more important reason: that's the brute fact that "Distant Star's" conceit, born of an image Shinkai either saw or created, of a young woman texting somebody from a cockpit, is somewhat difficult to take seriously, presenting a near-future Earth that has, apparently and despite very, very little about any of the setting being futuristic, engaged in a grand intergalactic war of self-defense, and our heroine has joined the war effort as a far-ranging mecha pilot while her childhood sweetheart and teenage boyfriend, having flunked trig or whatever, has been left behind on Earth as a spectator; the (loosely-drawn) realities of relativistic time dilation have rendered their last connection to each other, 1998-vintage SMS messaging, tenuous, their messages eventually taking years to pass back and forth. I like this metaphor a lot, and the literalization of it very little. Everything about the stupid space war—which is ultimately just stylistic castoffs from the Gundam shows and (in its bio-gore flourishes) Evangelion—and in the almost overt begrudgingness with which that stupid space war gets integrated into the world-building, makes it obvious that what Shinkai wanted was what he would always want, a story about disconnected, lonely love, but he recognized it would be easier for his OVA to get attention with a sci-fi gloss. And thus, bowing to shonen priorities, he dutifully includes the proper quota of melancholy "war, what is it good for?" mecha 'splosions, even though it's about the pain of growing apart and not having the time for someone who's not part of your life anymore.
I belabor "Distant Star" not solely for the sake of filmmaker-I-love completism (that's just one factor), but because that insecure impulse is likewise built into the foundation of the feature that "Distant Star's" success allowed Shinkai to produce. It is, to be extremely reductive about it, too much of a science fiction anime, but what I mean is that it's too dedicated to being a science fiction anime to dovetail with the style, themes, tones, and narrative concerns of a Shinkai movie, while never even getting close to being dedicated enough to make any serious attempt to be animated science fiction, either. And that is hindsight talking but it could be just, you know, sight talking. It is completely evident in real time that the inability to reconcile these two things are what's screwing Early Days up.
We can give it this much credit, it's at least ambitious and weird: in an alternate history that is alluded to more than it's ever sensibly explained, Japan has suffered a partial occupation of its territory by what the movie only ever calls "the Union," also using this as its adjectival form, and I'm not sure whose toes Shinkai thought he shouldn't step on here in 2004, but it's the Soviet Union; the implication (and it may have been made explicit) is that the Second World War went slightly differently. The region of Ezo—Hokkaido, the Kurils, and all rather than just half of Sakhalin—has accordingly been integrated into the Soviet Far East. During the subsequent fifty years (for we begin our story in 1996), the Soviets have built, with the help of a conveniently Hokkaidoese scientist, Ekusun Tsukinoe, an enormous and mysterious tower—miles tall, so tall we eventually learn it's visible from Tokyo which I do not believe even remotely checks out—and while nobody knows or seems to care exactly why they built it immediately across the Tsugaru Strait instead of, for instance, in Kazakhstan, its proximity to the prying eyes of the Japanese and their American patrons has not so far revealed any particular understanding of what its purpose could be.
Its purpose is less important to our principals, however, than the majesty of its vertical, magical line rising against the blue sky. These are three middle school-age children on the northern shore of Honshu—two male best friends, Hiroki (Hidetake Yoshioka) and Takuya (Masato Hagiwara), and soon thereafter the girl that both but especially Hiroki is crushing on, Sayuri (Yuka Nanri)—who devote themselves to building out of spare parts and abandoned aviation debris an aircraft that they hope can take them to see the tower, up close. This is the place, you might say, and the film does say, promised in their early days. An idyllic summer passes for the kids together, with the boys working at a defense subcontractor (sub-sub-sub-subcontractor, presumably; it's a shack in the sticks that uses child labor) for the U.S. military forces run by their boss Okabe (Unsho Ishizuka), and all three working on the plane that they never quite finish. The dream is shattered when Sayuri disappears. Hiroki and Takuya grow up and grow apart, Takuya becoming a scientist, Hiroki becoming more-or-less nothing.
This is the first forty minutes, give or take, of the ninety minute film, and it's functional and possibly even more functional than it should be, if viewed with one's foreknowledge of where his every-story-is-the-Izangi-story laser-focus will ultimately take Shinkai as a filmmaker. It slams into the early adulthood ennui of our principals, but more destructively it slams into that sci-fi anime that Shinkai has managed to hold at bay with his lighting effects and moodiness for this long, but no longer, whereupon ninety minutes turns out to somehow be both too little time and too tediously much to support the plot that finally kicks in. Shinkai himself manifestly has no interest in it. He clearly likes his sci-fantasy ideas, but he would find more purchase with ideas that are more purely mystical, drawn in a specifically Shinto style, if not necessarily drawn from actual Shinto religious lore, and while we're really talking more about flavor, flavor seems to matter. I will dutifully summarize the-plot-that-kicks-in, though it is confusingly and obliquely presented—and never in a tantalizing way, more like in a way that indicates that Shinkai has seen Jin-roh and has some idea of how one should do "Japan lost World War II, but harder" alt-history, as well as the more "generically anime" world-threatening science fiction concepts he's obliged himself to deal with, but in neither case with any apparent intrinsic passion for these things, because what he actually wants to do is just present alienated visions of Japan as represented by, inter alia, that shot of a darkened, empty schoolroom full of desks that have been pushed into a patternless chaos and left abandoned, imagery that first shows up in "Distant Star," shows up here, and that he'll use three or four more times afterwards.
So: Takuya, though a government physicist, has gotten involved in a fuzzily-presented reunification movement that I suppose might be the reason that a Soviet-Japanese conflict or, probably, a full-on World War III (the scope of this conflict is plainly outside the scope of this story), has become imminent; for her part, Sayuri disappeared because she started lapsing into comas and finally lapsed into one she never came out of, connected in some way to the tower and its mystery, which is clarified slightly in that Tsukinoe was her grandfather and he built it to study the multiverse, but it has lately gone awry and been merging realities, destroying our own, so far only a big circular hole in the ground around the tower but with the promise of getting worse. Lately, Takuya and Sayuri's neurologist Maki (Risa Mizuno) have figured out that this is in some inexplicable correlation with Sayuri's comatose states—basically, if she fully wakes up, the tower will destroy everything. Hiroki has made contact with Sayuri in her coma dream, however, and resolves to make a rapprochement with Takuya and fulfill the promise they, yes, made in their early days. And also blow up the tower or something.
This is, at its simplest level, Weathering With You, made fifteen years earlier and in every respect less successful, eventually not even capable of committing to the "the girl or the world" conflict that's driving it. And I realize this is the worst kind of retroactive hindsight, but the existence of a deuteragonist doesn't even really change the formula that much: there's a persistent sense that Takuya doesn't actually need to be in the movie, and frankly the new obstacles this would put in Hiroki's way would undoubtedly make it a more interesting, plottier story, since Takuya's emotional function is somewhat redundant with Sayuri's and his plot function is essentially just "convenient access to Sayuri's unconscious body." (One can idly wonder, then, if Early Days is the reason that Shinkai has made it something of a rule in his screenwriting to excise all agency from more than one or two characters, because having a third character with any only gunked up the works.)
Aesthetically, it's, yes, still early days—and I swear I will stop saying that now, but I want you to understand my temptation to drive it straight into the Earth's core—but it does look like a real anime feature. The character design is still bad but not ridiculously bad, and the character animation is as good or as bad as you'd expect, and maybe a little better in key scenes like the bucolic sequence where the kids all wind up falling, one by one, into a summertime lake. Early Days gave Shinkai the first budget where his paramount interest in effects animation could be genuinely pursued: later on, he would become the world's premier purveyor of precipitation, and that wasn't in the technological cards for him yet (rain effects are basically just the same overlay you'd see on a contemporary TV show, neither bad nor impressive), but he's going to town on lighting effects, to a degree that is frankly kind of irritating. Sometimes you can point to very specific overreach—the hanging fluorescent light fixtures in Okabe's high-ceilinged factory shack have absurd haloes that reach the floor—but a lot of it is just a constant, chronic miscalibration of the "cinematography" so that giant glares from nowhere tend to wash out images with alarming frequency, and there's something about the orange-ass golden hour color palette of the childhood sequences that shoots straight past "halcyon" and hits "cloying."
And Makoto Shinkai was never heard from again!
The curiosity is, it's not cloying enough? There is a resolute chilliness to Shinkai's screenwriting and direction at this stage, and it's hard to exactly describe why that is because I don't think it's actually on purpose, and because so many of his preoccupations in Early Days are the exact same preoccupations that would eventually make his movies the warmest, heartmeltingest fucking things on this planet. So we get Shinkai's customarily soulfully-photoreal montage of objects and physical spaces, and his customary recourse to odd, slightly voyeuristic, and slightly isolating angles on his characters; and yet for whatever reason it feels like not only are they depressed about their situation, the movie itself is too depressed to engage with them. A much more rewarding balance of early Shinkai cold melancholy and later Shinaki passionate despair would be found immediately on his next project, 5 Centimeters Per Second, and its chilliness works on its behalf. It isn't, I don't think, solely down to the characters themselves being boring, though they are and this doesn't help; nor does the need to service the conspiracy plot and the sci-fi gobbledygook. I may overstate it because those first forty minutes, depressed as they can be even in moments of joy, do work in the context of the film as a whole, as the nostalgically painful review of happy memories from within a later state of sadness. And while I have no affection for the plot function of any of the sci-fi crap in this movie, I do unreservedly love the symbolic power of the soaring tower forever out of reach, and the vistas of flight that constitute the climax (even if I don't especially like Hiroki's stupid-looking plane which looks like Shinkai accidentally CGIed half of a windmill before he remembered what he was doing), whereas even the division of Japan is, I suppose, a metaphor; likewise do I like Sayuri's dreamworld of an empty cityscape, though this is more interesting than the broken towers with mystical graffiti on them she ends up on, which feel like the limits of Shinkai's fantastic imagination were quickly reached. (Which is an issue to discuss later, when we do The Children Who Chase Lost Voices.)
The problem, then, is that the emotions it generates are cordoned off into scenes rather than permeating the whole film—maybe it also doesn't help that one of our love interests is, pretty much literally, baggage—while the sci-fi dilemma itself is sort of just shrugged at, more as an afterthought. There are beautiful passages in this film, and it's shocking how complete it can feel as a guidebook to all the elements of Shinkai's style without those elements ever quite coming together the way you know they should.
Score,"She and Her Cat": 7/10
Score, "Voices of a Distant Star": 6/10
Score, The Place Promised In Our Early Days: 5/10