Looking back to The Place Promised in Our Early Days, and even further into the distance with his OVA ‘Voices of a Distant Star’, together the two animations showcase Makoto Shinkai’s development into the themes that have brought him such phenomenal success with your name. Sci-fi supplants its wonder within the ordinary, and young lovers are divided by near-insurmountable space. The space of ‘Voices’ is literal, crossing lightyears, and embodies the passion and desolation in Shinkai’s budding dream as an animator, earnest and more than a little clumsy. He created the entire short himself, written and produced from scratch on his laptop, and in the original, he and his then-girlfriend Mika Shinohara provided the voices of the two central characters. This disc presents the professionally dubbed version, with Sumi Mutoh as Mikako and Chihiro Suzuki (who also voiced Elfen Lied’s Kouta) as Noboru, but the extras include the original dub for anyone curious to hear it.
In ‘Voices’, Mikako and Noboru conquer the distance between them with text messages, each further and further apart as Mikako heads beyond our solar system with the UN Space Army, a soldier in a war against the Tarsians, alien invaders who took first blood on Mars. In time she reaches Sirius, where a single text from her takes over eight years to reach Earth. As he turns 24, she is still 15 and jumping through the stars at light speed, she and her fellow soldiers never ageing compared to those waiting on Earth.
While I was hoping for a story more simplistic, even abstract, compared to Shinkai’s story, ‘Voices of a Distant Star’ still turns on tears of gratitude for the people and pleasures of everyday life we’ve taken for granted. But The Place Promised in Our Early Days, set in a time of post-war reparations, opens up a deeper regret – the paranoia of a potential future set in motion by violent events we have little power to change.
There’s a Separation in place between the North and South of Japan. The border is tantamount to a segregation, families torn apart and all crossings forbidden. A needle-like tower stands symbolic of the divide, bisecting the sky and penetrating our view. Two boys, Takuya and Hiroki, are building a plane and planning an illegal flight to the Tower on Ezo, once known as Hokkaido and now separated from the mainland. Their friend, Sayuri, gets in on their scheme and they all promise each other that they will make the flight together.
The “construction days” of Japan are behind it, and the country has reverted to more community-driven ways of life. Cities seem irrelevant, now manufacture is a military objective. Industrial buildings, while still in use, look like hollowed out shells, and the dream of the three children feels like a return to the early ages of invention. Dreams in themselves put down roots as integral storytelling devices in Shinkai’s work right here. Sayuri has been having dreams about the Tower, but broken and twisted, and part of a forest of others just like it. She knows these are the dreams of the universe. Slowly, she retreats from life into the dream, suspended in narcoleptic sleep.
As she tries to make sense of it all for herself, then leaves her boys of summer behind with only an unfulfilled promise, certain shots have a weird, SHAFT-esque overexposed isometry to them. Skies of dye on denim emerge as Shinkai’s mark of excellence as an animator. It’s through sky and immense cloudscapes that he sets tone and mood, creates the expanse characters overcome. The lighting of shots is rich with meaning, the emotion of that moment, then in a second the colour of a scene will change, the music following like a lightning storm. Floating piano and strings darken with drama and the onset of war is framed in sepia, the Tower reflecting the sun, the flash cutting open the horizon. Anyone who’s seen the posters for your name. will recognise this view immediately.
Shinkai is terrified of where our current conflicts are heading, but crucially he doesn’t create dystopias. He shows humanity handling developments as they come, the innocent making the best of the time they’re in. Still, the uncovered possibility of forecasting the future through analysing alternate realities is presented as a danger; it would be a political and military boon first and foremost, and that could only be a sinister prospect.
Woven into the background of lazy lives on the edge of another war, radio broadcasts track the approaching threat. ‘Voices of a Distant Star’ also takes this expository bent, telling us all we need know about the battles between the stars through news headlines. To watch one then go straight to the next is to experience Shinkai’s leaps into the visual majesty of the industrial contrasted with the rural. We see in both his tributes to Miyazaki, a majestic stag-like creature from a star in Sirius’ system, the plane in Promised an elegant craft, placid in flight with the light wings of a bird, like Nausicaä’s Mehve. Visual motifs run connections between the two films and through to your name., lights travelling across the sky, anonymous and awe-inspiring. They lead us to a future we can only face with whatever we can muster in ourselves. But in that, there’s a core lesson Shinkai has learned from Ghibli and made his own – that courage attracts towards us the love, belonging and meaning we crave.
Extras: English dubs
‘Voices of a Distant Star’ – alternate Japanese audio featuring Makoto Shinkai; ‘She and Her Cat’ short; interview with Makoto Shinkai; storyboards; trailer collection.
The Place Promised in Our Early Days – interviews with Makoto Shinkai and lead Japanese voice actors (Yuuka Nanri, Masato Hagiwara, and Hidetaka Yoshioka); trailer collection.