Makoto Shinkai is probably best-known as the man who created the short OAV Voices of a Distant Star almost single-handedly from little more than a desktop computer; his follow-up on the other hand is a feature-length effort with a full roll call of production staff in the credits. Place Promised”¦ is a significantly more ambitious and polished production as a result, although there are at least some general themes and ideas that it shares with its predecessor: the portrayal of things like love and friendship spanning time and space being particularly familiar to fans.
Other comparisons, such as with those of Hayao Miyazaki’s work, are quite frankly inaccurate because Shinkai’s movies are so individual, so personal, that they bear little resemblance to the Studio Ghibli veteran, or anyone else in the industry for that matter. In an alternate “present’, Japan is divided in two across the Tsugaru Strait; an enormous white tower has been constructed on the far northern shore whose purpose is unknown. Two teenagers make a promise to build an aircraft together and fly across to the tower, taking their friend Sayuri with them. Unfortunately time and circumstances split their friendship apart as world war looms and Sayuri falls ill with a mysterious sleeping sickness.
This summary hardly does justice to a story that is simple enough on the surface but has hidden depths of meaning and makes some profound observations of adolescence and the innocent sense of optimism that it brings. As with Shinkai’s previous work this film is visually stunning to watch: he is clearly fascinated with the world around us and how it shapes our emotions, and takes every opportunity to show this to the full. The spectacular landscapes and sunsets are shown in expansive, sweeping shots complete with simulated lens flares and a truly breathtaking sense of realism; they are a marked improvement over his earlier films but also rival many of the major studios’ recent efforts.
There are one or two minor inconsistencies in the animation itself but overall it’s meticulously rendered and complimented well by the minimalist soundtrack; the plaintive and melancholic main theme, performed on a violin, is particularly memorable.
Although Shinkai has a talent for impressing the viewer visually, this film is not lacking in the characterisation either. As with Voices”¦ and She and Her Cat, it evokes strong feelings and emotions, placing the development of the cast in the fore and the events that affect them more in the background. The causes of Sayuri’s illness and the imminent conflict are hinted at and even explained in a roundabout way but the effects on the characters’ lives and relationships are given much closer attention.
The technobabble and politics drive the underlying story along but are not essential to the main themes, which is fortunate since they sometimes complicate things and add some minor plot holes. For all the talk of parallel universes and world wars though, it is at its heart a bittersweet and wistful story of friendship, of following your dreams and holding onto the things that matter most; delivered with a strong sense of hope and a hint of loneliness.
Place Promised”¦ may feature some distracting plot details that you’d normally associate with hard science fiction but anyone can relate to the fundamental messages of love, loss and nostalgia that form the core of the story. From the opening credits to the soaring, tear-jerking final scene it is a unique and heartfelt piece of cinema; I’d even go as far as to say it’s a contender for the DVD release of the year.