Were was I for the last hour and a half? As the credits rolled down my TV screen my brother and I made jokes about how watching The Place Promised in Our Early Days (TPPIOED) spirited us away into a timeless existence. Like a dream. This is not to say that we loved the film. Overall, there are very few good qualities to the film and far too much loose and careless writing. Makoto Shinkai, the singular man behind "Voices of a Distant Star" got his own studio and has produced another film. Some are calling him the next Miyazaki. In all seriousness, such a claim is ridiculous. While the master Miyazaki crafts wonderfully tight, simple, and profoundly subtle films, TPPIOED reflects an artist that is out of touch with what makes stories and film so great.
One of my favorite parts of anime is how the Japanese interpret and incorporate their cultural respect for action into the characters, plot, and story telling. Not just the over the top, fantasy, powering up, it's over 9000 kind of martial arts action. But all action. From playing tennis (Prince of Tennis), baking bread (Yakitatte Japan), working in a bathhouse (Spirited Away), or spending time with friends (The Girl Who Leapt Through Time) the Japanese have a way of taking an action, fleshing it out and creating a main character that uses the action. To make the action more significant, the worlds of these stories are designed around around the action. And it is through this action that the characters most likely learn something about themselves and grow in the process. Along with the action come themes, motifs, and other subtle elements that tie everything together. The truth is, anime does this very well, but the Japanese are not the only one to do it. All stories are based around some kind of action as events unfold through time. And the best stories are tightly organized and executed. How connected and meaningful these actions are to the rest of the story is how we can measure the quality of storytelling.
TPPIOED does not have any significant action. This is not to say that the characters don't do anything in the film. But I will say that the characters almost do nothing. The promise that is such a core part of the film and the title involves building a plane to fly to a distant tower that was erected because of a war torn Japan. So you might think the film involves a lot of flying and struggling to build the plane? Perhaps you expect a moment of despair after a failed attempt? TPPIOED has none of these scenes. But what the film does have, unfortunately, is a lot of narration.
I don't know too much about the craft of film making taught in film schools. As an indie film maker, I picked up everything that I know on my own. One lesson I do know they teach is that narration (and also dialog) should carefully and sparingly used. Essentially, the strongest communicative element in a film is visuals. Human sight makes up around 80% of our sensory perception. So when you're trying to communicate something through a film, it's best to do so visually. Thus, visual story telling is prioritized, which is why centering a film or a show around characters with actions is a great way to go. The poor filmmakers or screenplay writers don't understand this. Whether they can't seem to convert the literary, inner voice, introspective style into a visual storytelling style or they simply aren't aware of the strengths of different mediums in the first place, creators like Makoto Shinkai miss the mark.
For that matter, I don't think TPPIOED would have make a great book either. I generally applaud the effort of creators pushing the boundaries and/or conventional rules of a medium. With this great risk sometimes comes a great payoff. But the extremely heavy use of narration, multiple voices, and a lack of action in TPPIOED make it too hard for the story to establish place and time. And this short coming occurs before the film introduces the scifi theory of parallel universes with harmonic coexistence with people's dreams. What we're left with is what I call the dregs of anime, or a soulless, copycat work.
Instead of truly grasping the craft, less than talented creators often copy what they like. They copy what's "cool" to them. And often times for Japanese anime creators, their version of cool is a partially immature, incomplete, shonen's (young boy's) version of cool. Without the mature sense or the experience to take these cool elements and weave them into a more sophisticated, coherent work, they simply put in what they like and move on. So what we're left with in TPPIOED is a lot of narration and scenes that seem like they go together, but are ultimately shallow. Crazy scifi concepts are dropped. Characters work in undercover plots. Others wander around in their own lonely worlds. A car blows up. Friends are held at gunpoint. And it all falls flat. In other words, the story is written as if all the great characterization happens off screen and we're just supposed to assume and accept the gaps in communication and move on.
While the scenery is wonderfully drawn, the character design and animation is pretty ho-hum. Sure they have a bit of charm to them. I like how they're not extremely perfect or pretty looking. But overall, they seem fairly generic and poorly drawn. Perhaps if the characters were better animated I would have a different opinion. However, it's more difficult to characterize someone through animation when he/she doesn't do much. After all, the great Miyazaki created opportunities to show the differences in kid characters like in My Neighbor Totoro or Ponyo through their actions even with something simple like running around the house.
The film also has a problem with scope and believability. I will say that I'm more than used to anime kids doing extraordinary things. I've accepted that Ichigo from Bleach looks like a college student and that nearly every other Shonen Jump character seems a bit old for just being around 12 years old. But I find it a bit too much of a stretch for the middle school/high school characters in TPPIOED to be smart enough to build an airplane, program the system, and work with an ultra high tech facility that manipulates alternate realities. It's details like this that hurt what little believability the film actually establishes.
The Place Promised in Our Early Days isn't nothing. But it is a lot of incomplete utterances that don't come together. Though I kind of enjoyed watching it, I can't say that I haven't seen anything like it before. Plenty of shows have bad writing. Plenty of shows have some good ideas. In the end, The Movie Recommended in My Earlier Tweets disappoints.