Unlike Hayao Miyazaki's "Howl's Moving Castle," Makoto Shinkai's "The Place Promised in Our Early Days" arrives with no burdensome comparisons...

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Unlike Hayao Miyazaki’s “Howl’s Moving Castle,” Makoto Shinkai’s “The Place Promised in Our Early Days” arrives with no burdensome comparisons to its creator’s previous work. Unless you’ve seen “Voices of a Distant Star,” a 2003 anime short that Shinkai single-handedly created on a PowerMac computer, his feature-length anime debut will come as an impressive revelation. Judging from these two films alone, it’s clear that 32-year-old Shinkai has arrived as an anime force to be reckoned with.

“The Place Promised” beat “Howl’s Moving Castle” and Katsuhiro Otomo’s “Steamboy” to win Best Animated Film honors at the prestigious Mainichi Film Awards, given by one of Japan’s leading national newspapers. Shinkai’s been dubbed “the new Miyazaki,” but that’s misguided hype; even at this early stage, it’s clear that Shinkai’s style is uniquely his own.

“The Place Promised” is also the best proof yet that anime cannot be dismissed as kid stuff. In theme, design and emotional depth, it’s entirely worthy of serious consideration, embracing but also transcending the fantastical spectacle that defines most of the genre’s sci-fi and fantasy milestones.

Movie review 3 stars

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“The Place Promised in Our Early Days,” with voices of Hidetaka Yoshioka, Masato Hagiwara, Yuuka Nanri. Written and directed by Makoto Shinkai. 90 minutes. Not rated; for mature audiences (contains brief violence). In Japanese with English subtitles. Grand Illusion, through Thursday.

The story unfolds as a melancholy remembrance, illustrating the power of love in an alternate post-World War II timeline that finds Japan divided, with Honshu and other southern islands under U.S. control, and the northern island of Hokkaido annexed by the Japanese Union. It’s a tenuous cold-war scenario, where jet contrails constantly etch the sky and a gigantic, mysterious tower stretches into the clouds. Built on Hokkaido’s southern shore in 1996, its purpose is shrouded in mystery.

The narrator is Hiroki, recalling his most cherished summer as a junior-high-school student in Aomori prefecture. Smitten with a cute classmate named Sayuri, he promises to take her on a journey to the enigmatic tower (hence the film’s title), piloting an eccentric airplane he’s cobbled together with his best friend Takuya.

The promise remains unfulfilled when Sayuri falls into a coma, somehow connected to the tower and the existence of parallel universes, previously suggested only in the quantum-level manifestation of dreams. Three years pass until Hiroki gets a chance to make good on his promise, and he flies with the unconscious Sayuri toward a climactic encounter with the tower’s mysterious influence.

Shinkai’s metaphysical musings are murky at best, and he complicates his sweetly innocent tale with a terrorist plot and the outbreak of war, making Hiroki’s reminiscence more densely eventful than it really needs to be. The sci-fi stuff is similarly sketchy, if only because Shinkai remains focused on the emotional journey of his characters.

To Shinkai’s credit, most of “The Place Promised in Our Early Days” serves that admirable priority. It’s a beautiful film to look at, glowing with idyllic atmosphere, pastel skies and careful attention to revealing details of character. The sentimental score is laden with soothing piano and plaintive violin, but it suits the story being told.

By any standard it’s impressive anime; as a feature debut it’s a remarkable achievement.

Jeff Shannon: j.sh@verizon.net