The Place Promised in Our Early Days (Kumo no Mukō, Yakusoku no Basho)

[A couple of spoilers in this one]*.

There are a few Makoto Shinkai works I haven’t seen so far but I’m still comfortable placing this film somewhere between ‘not my favourite of his’ and ‘still beautiful’ though I’m not sure how useful those descriptors are re: ranking.

The Place Promised in Our Early Days (Kumo no Mukō, Yakusoku no Basho) 2004

And maybe they’re not at all… so I’ll be more specific – basically, I was transfixed chiefly by the visuals and the use of that ‘soft’ colour that makes Shinkai works so recognisable, and the fantastic detail that really sold every single frame, in terms of the ‘alternate Japan’ setting.

After a bit of reflection I suspect what I didn’t enjoy as much was the integration of the fantastical/mystical perhaps, that and the pacing – or maybe I should say the ending. And even that’s a bit misleading, because what I wanted more of was time for the discovery, destruction and aftermath of the tower. It’s so central to the story but the climax is completed reasonably quickly compared to what I was hoping for.

On the other hand, cinematically it’s great to see the change in colour and intensity in those moments, actually. I also really liked the design of Hiroki and Takuya’s airplane and maybe that (and the science-fiction(ish) elements of this film) will bring Voices of a Distant Star to mind. In a similar way, I think if you’ve not seen this one, the downbeat, bittersweet tone of Shinkai’s first feature film will be familiar enough if you’ve seen his others.

And to compare The Place Promised in Our Early Days to Voices… once more, one of the things that is so impressive about this movie is that Shinkai was involved in so many aspects in terms of conception and production. This time around it’s not quite a one man show but wow, it’s abundantly clear that he is one talented artist and filmmaker.

Definitely worth watching if you’re a fan of Shinkai and haven’t seen this one yet but if you’re new to his films then this is not the best entry-point I reckon.

3 Stars

*I’m a little pressed for time lately so I wasn’t able to go screencap happy today, and instead sourced these images from google.

Children Who Chase Lost Voices (Hoshi wo Ou Kodomo)

Children Who Chase Lost Voices (Hoshi wo Ou Kodomo) 2011

I think Children Who Case Lost Voices stands out in Makoto Shinkai’s filmography as the one with the biggest scope. To date, it’s also his last ‘adventure’ story perhaps, since the movies that followed put relationships in the foreground.

Children Who Case Lost Voices is far more ‘sweeping’ with multiple storylines and various players engaged in big conflicts – though the narrative does mostly zoom down to focus on schoolgirl Asuna as she tries to uncover the mysteries of Agartha – the land of the dead. I’ve simplified the plot there but despite the fantastical elements, it’s still a story of very personal stakes for the lead characters.

And wow, the imagination on display here is so fantastic – I remember being so excited at the time, in part because the film was another ‘original concept’ work and I’d love to see more of them, as opposed to mostly watching adaptations. If you’ve never come across Children who Chase Lost Voices then my mini rave about the imagination of the film – things like the creepy Izoku, the Quetzalcoatl or the Ark of Life – won’t appear as more than a list of empty nouns, but so much about the story strikes a great balance between familiar and unusual, especially in regard to the setting of Agartha itself.

The flipside to all the immersive world-building is that the audience doesn’t always know what means what, when certain events happen or why characters act a specific way, and at times, rather than create a pleasant sense of anticipatory curiosity, that can set you adrift. You don’t necessarily always want to be spoon-fed as a viewer, but nor do we always want the opposite either. That happened for me at times but the visuals and the pacing kept me going and usually, within a few scenes the film gave me the context I needed.  

As with most Shinkai films, there’s a careful focus on how light appears in the natural world

Possibly my favourite Makoto Shinkai feature film but I haven’t had a chance to see Weathering with You yet so I guess I’d better reserve judgement for just a little longer!

4 Stars

Random sidenote: Not sure if I’m way off now, and I’m having to rely on my memory of the time – but I think the film comes right after emo culture peaked in many places, and to some extent the angst and deep discontent of that sub-culture seems to have fed into characters within Children Who Case Lost Voices. Again, maybe I’m reaching with that claim but I’m thinking of Shun here at least.

I think it’s also easy to see where a certain amount of anime aesthetic fed into the emo scene and vice-a-versa too, though no single culture lives in a vacuum of course. I wonder if I should do some real research and try to see if there’s anything there… perhaps one day.

Garden of Words (Kotonoha no Niwa)

Garden of Words (Kotonoha no Niwa) 2013

If you’re a Makoto Shinkai fan and for some reason you’ve overlooked Garden of Words I reckon you should rectify that and take a look.

The movie is shorter than a feature film but that compressed the storytelling and worked really well for me, so it felt like the perfect length. Garden of Words also plays to all Shinkai’s strengths with beautiful backgrounds, wonderful attention to detail, a dramatic love story and coming of age themes.

I also feel like there are echoes of films like Whisper of the Heart within, along with a clear nod to Cinderalla and the fairy tale genre in particular. Like a lot of film, it presents an idealised story, a romanticised one, but one where the beauty doesn’t mask the real fears and problems the two main characters face.

As is my way with these write-ups, I won’t spend much time on the plot but Garden of Words could be called a ‘first love’ story with the coming of age aspects not limited to the main character, perhaps. I’ve spent a bit of space here trying to define it via themes or genre but perhaps a single word is better – I think the movie is sweet.

And maybe that’s ‘sweet’ but spiked with a moment or two that’s more bittersweet, although that won’t be a surprise for fans of Makoto Shinkai, though the film is certainly no ‘downer’ either.

Even if you don’t end up gripped by the story the visuals will probably transfix you – the garden and the characters’ homes, the weather, it’s all pretty stunning. In fact, I’ll watch it again for the rain alone, it’s sublime. And yeah, I’ll cut back on my quest for a superlative now and try and wrap it up by saying that I think this is a sweet, intimate film made all the more so by slow* pacing, by lots of close-ups and nature-based framing, by silences and earnest dialogue.

4 Stars

As a fan of haiku and renku, I really enjoyed the appearance of classic Japanese poetry in the story too, via the tanka that features as a plot point 🙂

*And this might be redundant, but just like the word ‘sweet’ further above, I don’t mean for ‘slow’ to be a negative here.