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Anime / The Place Promised in Our Early Days

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"On those now distant days... we made a promise we couldn't keep."

The Place Promised In Our Early Days (Japanese: 雲のむこう、約束の場所 Kumo no Mukō, Yakusoku no Basho, literally "Beyond the Clouds, the Promised Place") is Makoto Shinkai's second film, and was released in 2004. It is his first feature length film, which was made possible by his collaboration with a large staff. The story is set in the late 1990s in Japan; during 1974, the nation was divided into two halves, one administered by the United States, and the other by the Union. The Union constructed a massive tower reaching far into the sky in the same year, and the sheer scale of the tower made it visible from Tokyo on a clear day.

As teenagers in northern Aomori Prefecture, Hiroki Fujisawa and Takuya Shirakawa became friends with a girl, Sayuri Sawatari, and came to know each other better while travelling to and from school on the train. When Hiroki and Takuya find a crashed drone plane, they begin to repair it and promise to take Sayuri to the tower. However, she mysteriously disappears before they can and the boys' lives drift apart.

Three years later, in 1999, tensions between the UN alliance and the Union grow. Takuya is now working with the Alliance to understand parallel universes, while Hiroki is a student in Tokyo, who suffers increasing melancholy as a result of his numerous dreams about Sayuri. He receives a letter from her one day, and as the threat of war builds in the divided nation, he discovers that the mystery of Sayuri's disappearance is linked to the fate of the world and resolves to fulfill his promise to her.

The film concerns similar thematic elements to Shinkai's previous work, Voices of a Distant Star, in that both works relate to the consequences of being separated from the individuals that one holds dear.

A novelisation was written by Arata Kanoh in 2005 but only got an English release by Yen Press in 2020. A manga written by Shinkai and illustrated by Mizu Sahara was serialised in Monthly Afternoon from February to August 2006. 14 years after its initial release, the film got a stage adaptation in 2018.

The Place Promised In Our Early Days provides examples of:

  • Aliens in Cardiff: The story starts in desolate Aomori Prefecture at the northernmost tip of Honshu and returns there for the climax.
  • Alternate History: The US occupies most of Japan, and Hokkaido is held by the Union - who are still around and an advanced technological power in The '90s. One subtle example has an F-23 take place in a dogfight; in reality, the F-23 never entered production, as the Air Force opted to instead go with the F-22 Raptor.
  • Alternate Universe: Both the Union and the United States pour resources towards understanding of parallel universes, which drives the story forward.
  • All There in the Manual: The movie's backstory is provided in detail in the accompanying Printed Materials from the DVD.
  • Always Save the Girl: Even at great risk to himself, Hiroki flies over hostile airspace amidst combat in trying to reach the tower and help Sayuri awaken. Driven home earlier by Takuya, who asks him to choose between saving the world or her, though he eventually goes along with the plan despite his misgivings, taking Sayuri from the hospital before the NSA can spirit her away for further study and helping finish the Velaciela.
  • Artistic License – Physics: The primary propulsion on the heroes' aircraft transitions from its jet engine to a superconducting motor midflight, upon which the aircraft's wings begin rotating slowly like a massive propeller. Despite providing negligible thrust or lift, the airplane remains airborne somehow.
  • Aspect Montage:
    • Hiroki and Takuya's work on the Velaciela is shown in great detail, as is the hanger for storing their aircraft.
    • A supercut of empty Tokyo locales is shown as symbolism of Hiroki's loneliness following Sayuri's disappearance.
  • Author Appeal: Makoto Shinkai seems to be following in Miyazaki's footsteps in this regard; amazing attention is paid to anything that flies, whether they are planes, helicopters, or missiles. Furthermore, trains play a significant role in this movie.
  • Barrier Maiden: Sayuri's coma is preventing the tower from swallowing up the world.
  • Beautiful Void: The alternate universe appears unsullied, but is heart-wrenchingly desolate.
  • Bizarrchitecture: The tower is extremely tall; it rises far above all mountains and visible cloud layers, and is seemingly visible from most parts of Japan. Along with its mysterious purpose, there's the mystery of how it doesn't collapse under its own weight, or a stiff breeze.
  • Bland-Name Product: Billboards for "Popsi" can be seen.
  • Break the Cutie: Sayuri's isolation in the nether world drives this point home
  • Cannot Spit It Out: Played for Drama; Sayuri loses her memories before she can say it.
  • Chekhov's Gunman: Sayuri mentions early in the movie that her grandfather is a physicist; his role is significant in that he is the one who designed the tower.
  • Cold War: The backdrop for most of the movie. It heats up to the point of open warfare, but apparently things stopped short of nuclear World War III given that the movie ends on a happy note and the seemingly normal locales shown in the Whole Episode Flashback opening.
  • Cool, but Inefficient: It is initially thought that the Tower can't be a weapon, because its effect covers too small an area to be useful as one.
  • Cool Plane: The Velaciela
  • Covers Always Lie: Despite the prominence of violins in the key art, this is not a film about musicians.
  • Damsel in Distress: Sayuri
  • Diegetic Switch: After finishing the Velaciela, Hiroki caves in to Takuya's request to play the violin, and the piece he plays transits into background music.
  • Dreaming of Things to Come: Sayuri's dreams are set on a surreal world, and she has a premonition of awakening prior to the events of the film's final moments.
  • Earn Your Happy Ending: Despite their many troubles, Sayuri is eventually awoken and reunited with the others.
  • Fighter-Launching Sequence: There is a shot of the Velaciela undergoing a catapult-launched takeoff.
  • First-Name Basis: Sayuri uses Hiroki's given name after waking up. In Japanese, individuals only refer to each other by first name if they are extremely close.
  • Five-Second Foreshadowing: Takuya's professor says he wishes to know what the universe's dreams look like. The next scene shows they're nothing desirable.
  • Girly Run: Sayuri is depicted as running in this manner.
  • Given Name Reveal: Inverted; Ekusun Tsukinoe, the scientist who designed the Tower for the Union, is eventually revealed to be Sayuri's grandfather despite their different last names.
  • Gory Discretion Shot: In the last part of the film, as Hiroki is flying the Velaciela towards the Tower, its canopy gets splattered by blood from somewhere, maybe the pilot of the fighter destroyed in the dogfight shown just moments ago.
  • Hammer and Sickle Removed for Your Protection: The Union is never explicitly confirmed to be the USSR despite the contextual clues implying as much.
  • Happy Ending: Sayuri and Hiroki are reunified after she recovers from her coma, awakening to Hiroki and promising they'll start over again.
  • History Repeats: Falling short of Generation Xerox due to not actually being related, but when Takuya's professor is discussing with Okabe why they are letting Hiroki and Takuya take Sayuri to Hokkaido and carry out the attack on the Tower, the camera pans to a photo of a younger Okabe and professor with an unknown girl next to a flying machine of their own, with the clear implication that they were once in the same shoes that the protagonists are now filling.
  • Homage: There is an extended shot of characters watching a train pass that is very similar to one seen in Voices of a Distant Star.
  • How We Got Here: The film starts with an older Hiroki who is having hallucinations of Sayuri, then rewinds to his middle school years.
  • Istanbul (Not Constantinople): Hokkaido is returned to its old name of Ezo by the Union.
  • Lancer: Takuya, who serves as a foil for Hiroki. At the beginning of the movie, the boys' characters are revealed through the sports they partake: Takuya is serious and focused, and therefore a good speed skater, but Hiroki is something of a space cadet, which is why he's a poor archer.
  • Mood Lighting: The Tokyo scenes are mostly brown- and grey-tinted, reflecting Hiroki's low mood, in contrast with the verdant Aomori.
  • Nuclear Weapons Taboo: The massive fireball generated by the missile used to destroy the tower bears the characteristics of a nuclear weapon in all but name.
  • A Place Holds Memories: As Hiroki returns to the hangar where he and Takuya worked on the Bella Cielo at the start of the film, he has a vision of a young Sayuri from her visit to the site three years earlier.
  • Plot-Based Voice Cancellation: Early on, Sayuri tells Takuya something that she's afraid will make him laugh, to which he assures her he won't. As she says it, though, the sound of a train covers up whatever it is. It isn't until about two-thirds through that we go back and learn it's really about the strange dream she's been having.
  • The Promise: A promise is what drives the plot: Hiroki and Takuya promise to take Sayuri to Hokkaido in their homemade ultralight when it is complete.
  • Quantum Mechanics Can Do Anything: The experiment that Takuya is part of the team working on is called a "Quantum Mechanics Pineal Tower", whatever that means.
  • Ripped from the Headlines: There is a throwaway line during a news broadcast of America demanding the Union allow a UN inspection team into the Tower, which taking Production Lead Time into account is clearly a nod to the demands for UN inspections of Iraq, especially prior to the 2003 invasion.
  • Scenery Gorn: There are several shots of desolate landscapes with abandoned, falling-apart buildings, and that's just our universe.
  • Scenery Porn: The landscapes and surroundings are beautifully depicted. Whether it be grass fields under a vast sky or railway tracks reaching for the horizon, each scene is meticulously crafted.
  • Shout-Out: The poem Sayuri reads in class in an early scene is Eiketsu no Asa (jp:永訣の朝 "Morning of the Last Farewell") by Kenji Miyazawa. She is later shown reading The Net Involved in a Dream (jp:夢網 "Dream Net").
  • Soviet Superscience: Not only does the Union have the impossibly tall Tower, but they also have a much stronger grasp of alternate universes than the USA. On the other hand it is implied they don't have that much control over it, considering Sayuri dream is the only thing keeping it under control.
  • Sphere of Destruction: The tower replaces a semi-spherical area of the surrounding countryside with blue-black void. This is because it overwrites one universe with another.
  • Star-Crossed Lovers: Hiroki and Sayuri struggle with their feelings for each other because the latter disappeared from the former's life and, by the time he finds her again years later, she is in a coma. Even after she is awoken, she loses her memories of her romantic feelings for him. He vows to start over from the beginning and try to make it work; whether it does, we don't get to find out.
  • Take a Moment to Catch Your Death: A rare, nonfatal example. Sayuri is saved from a Literal Cliff Hanger off the end of an abandoned pier by Hiroki. Just as they are mostly safe and jubilating over the successful rescue, the rest of the dock gives way and dumps both of them into the ocean.
  • Title Drop: The Japanese title, "The Place Promised Beyond the Clouds", is mentioned in the lyrics of the ending theme, "Kimi no Koe/Your Voice".
  • Two Guys and a Girl: Hiroki, Takuya and Sayuri befriend one another, sharing summer days together working on the Velaciela or capitalising on the pleasant weather.
  • We Were Your Team: Hiroki and Takuya's friendship disintegrates after Sayuri's disappearance. Reuniting to finish the Velaciela for her sake brings them together again.
  • The World Is Just Awesome: Near the end of the film, the protagonists finally reach Hokkaido, finding a lush, peaceful place untouched by the war not too far away.
  • Your Terrorists Are Our Freedom Fighters: Ulita call themselves a liberation front fighting to reclaim Hokkaido and reunite their country, but are considered terrorists by most others.