At the end of World War II, Japan was split and a great tower was erected that reached the skies. For three friends, Hiroki, Takuya, and Sayuri, memories of their summer spent together would stay with them forever. During that precious time, the three promised to one day travel to the tower in the skies on the wings of a white plane -- to finally see its brilliance and the surrounding land of Ezo -- but when Sayuri suddenly disappeared from their lives, the promise that once was made was broken. Though time continues to pass, will the three ever meet again some day?
StoryThis is the area that seems to be drawing the most contention. Some laud this movie’s story as touching and elegant, while others vilify it as convoluted, leaden and incomplete. However, although the criticisms are definitely understandable, the story is praiseworthy in spite of them (honestly, were you expecting me to say anything else?). The first thing to emphasize is that, regardless of what the plot summary may sound like, this is not and should not be regarded as true science fiction. While there are definitely sci-fi elements in the show, the approach that the director takes uses them more as a backdrop for the main plotline than as an actual focus to the show. As a result, a lot of criticism is generated because the anime doesn’t “explain enough,” when in fact they’re missing the point entirely. The science-fiction is used to aid a story of love and friendship, not the other way round. The second thing to bring out into the open is that truly appreciating the storyline requires both a tolerance of a deliberate pace and an appreciation for what at heart is a rather simplistic story. Both of these elements seem to have turned more than a few people off, but for me they only added to the films elegance. Unfortunately, the narrative admittedly falters when the anime wanders into superfluous details that distract from the main focus of the show. Although such moments are thankfully rare, the times that they occur feel messy and muddled. These flaws in the story can most likely be attributed to the extra length of the movie; in Voices of a Distant Star, the limited running time forced the director to focus on what was most important. Here, however, he feels free (or even obligated) to diverge into places not relevant to his main plotline, and the result is never helpful. However, barring each of these points, the anime offers a truly moving experience. Essentially, the basic storyline can be distilled to three characters learning the importance of their childhood promises and feelings. While the story is simple, the director is able to gives immense depth and power to it. The message is also relatively straightforward, but at the same time thought-provoking and moving. While it’s not perfect, it’s definitely a cut above what most anime even hope for.AnimationBest. Animation. Ever. I don’t say this lightly; I literally mean that The Place Promised in Our Early Days’ animation easily surpasses everything I’ve seen up to this point. Pinning down the high point is somewhat difficult, but perhaps the best example of why this movie is the prettiest I’ve ever seen is how the director uses tricks of light to turn otherwise mundane scenes into works of breathtaking splendor. In one scene, two characters talk inside a train, and as they converse, off-scene light sources reflect off of the metal parts in the cabin as they pass by. The result can only be described as a dance of light, a radiant display that magnificently accentuates the actual conversation. Another example occurs when a girl picks up a violin inside of a school room. As she lifts the instrument up, the scene changes to show her almost silhouetted against the windows. The natural light shining through the windows almost completely drowns out the fluorescent lights attached to the ceiling, and the result is an excellent scene that perfectly complements the organic music that the girl begins to play. I could rant on this alone for at least a couple more paragraphs, but instead I’ll let the show speak for itself. An excellent screenshot that captures this skill with lighting can be found at one of the AniRec screenshots. The movie also has some truly amazing backgrounds. These backgrounds are fantastic not only for their artwork (which often approach the detail and quality from what I would expect from landscape painting), but for the fact that they are almost never completely static. Rolling clouds elegantly glide by, wind sifts through fields of grass, and images reflect across shimmering water. From these simple touches, each scene feels dynamic, alive and wondrous. The movie also incorporates a significant portion of CGI, and the work is pretty much seamless. Admittedly, the main characters all look somewhat generic. However, they fit well into the overall visual look of the show and are pleasant to look at, and thus the damage done is negligible. Furthermore, the somewhat unmemorable designs may actually be intentional (more about this in the character section). The overall result of all of these elements is a veritable feast of eye-candy, a monumental work that probably won’t be matched for some time.SoundThe sound is used in a relatively subtle fashion, but works well with the overall flow of the series. When played, the music is always completely instrumental and generally well produced. At times the music will surge and aid in the creation of some incredibly moving scenes, but there are also a lot of times when no music will be playing at all. Voice acting is generally done in a subdued, wistful sort of way, which fits very well with the show’s mood. Overall, the sound is basically flawless, but doesn’t play a large enough role to comment any further on.CharactersI can easily understand why a lot of people are scoring this category so low. Quite simply, there is basically no development to differentiate the characters in the film from any other anime character. However, because they have absolutely no defining traits, this may not be quite as much of a fault as one would think. By making the characters seem perfectly normal, the anime actually makes them easier to empathize with. Oxymoronic? Perhaps, but bear with me. Before Shrek was released, just about no one questioned a prince’s “true love” in fairy tales. This was not because the princes in such stories were quintessential examples of good character development, but because they were literally a blank slate for the reader to imagine himself as. The “love” for the princess was made real because one could simply imagine someone loveable. Similarly, the characters here are almost entirely formless, but rather than completely ruining the show, they merely give the film a different tone. The entire project becomes more abstract and universal, and may have even been the correct choice to make.OverallAs a whole, The Place Promised... is a soaring work, a stunning accomplishment that is basically a must-see for this year. As Makoto Shinkai’s debut into the world of film, this is a landmark achievement, and I dream of the day he surpasses this work. No other anime released in 2004 has resonated with me more.
StoryIt's really hard to talk about Beyond the Clouds without spoiling (for the record, I feel NFO and AniDB both spoil in their descriptions... as they both use the same description), so I'll stick to what happens in the beginning. What's implied, but not really discussed in detail, is that Japan underwent a split after they lost the war, and Hokkaido became the land of Ezo. A great tower was also built but its purpose was unknown until decades later. In the present, however, three friends enjoy a summer together. Two of them, Hiroki and Takuya, have constructed a plane over the years that they plan to fly eventually, to see the tower and the island of Ezo. Sayuri and the two make a promise that they’ll someday fly to the tower on the plane, but then, Sayuri mysteriously disappears, and life goes on for the two boys. That’s about half of the movie, with the other half being a few years later. Without spoiling, I’ll just say that the movie goes into some pretty scientific stuff and explores physics and other advanced topics. Beyond the Clouds is not for everyone. It’s not only slice of life, but it’s really, really slow slice of life. In addition, the topics covered are very intelligent and scientific, and probably would be best enjoyed if you have a strong science background. Granted, I didn’t find this to be a bad thing. I enjoy slice of life series, slower series, and things that are intelligent, though I do admit it was a bit much even for me. Still, the story was superb, the execution was good, and the flow was decent, so I still gave it an 8. As far as genre or mood? Well, it’s definitely slice of life as I mentioned above. Furthermore, there’s a subtle but very moving romance that occurs, which will definitely remind you of Hoshi no Koe. There is essentially no comedy, no action, and very little that happens between characters except talking, but it’s a great quiet ride nonetheless. So for the story? Good, but definitely not for everyone. AnimationIf you saw Hoshi no Koe, you surely were awed by how beautiful it was. Expect no less from Beyond the Clouds (created by the same person), and be assured you’ll be in for an even more beautiful treat this time around. Everything about BTC’s animation was stunning, from the beautiful panning background shots, to the close-ups, to the odd camera angles and character designs. Attention to detail was superb, lighting was amazing, and colors were rich and vibrant. Though this section is short, I really can’t say much else about the animation because it’s virtually flawless. The only reason I knocked down half a point is because the plane scenes did look a bit fake compared to the rest. Great animation all the way around. SoundMusic was orchestral and incredibly moving, or non existent. Due to this being very slice of life, it’s ok that music was devoid a lot of the time, and the music the rest of the time made up for it. Not much else to say about the soundtrack, since it was superb in most ways. Voice acting-wise, they all did a good job. CharactersThe only low point of the movie would be the characters, but not by much. Because this was a slice of life film that was very quiet and moody (and focused on the visuals), the characters suffered a bit. They weren’t developed basically at all, and we only knew about the thoughts and feelings of one of the male characters. The romance between two of the characters was definitely the strongest point of the character interactions, but nothing else hit me very hard. This is a movie you watch for the intelligent plot and (more so) the visuals, anyways. I would have liked to know a little more about the characters, though in the context of slice of life, maybe it wasn’t terribly necessary. OverallBeyond the Clouds definitely reached my expectations as something amazing. I guess I just wish it would have been a bit shorter or had better pacing, so I wouldn’t have been as occasionally bored. The transitions also really should have been fixed. In between each scene there would be several seconds of pitch black, including after a major buildup complete with booming music. The visuals are fantastic, music is great, and story is interesting, so what can you lose by watching this? As long as you don’t hate slice of life, Beyond the Clouds is great for a viewing.
Story: I would not wish to spoil the plot for anyone looking forwards to this, somewhat hyped movie. It is a very, very slow movie. If you are not a fan of 98 percent actionless movies that deal with day by day activities you will not like this. I must stress that that is not why the score is a 5.5, I am a fan of slow anime in many instances.Where a place promised in our early day loses points can be attributed to many things. First they don't give you a very solid hook, even by standard of slice of life animes, the first portion progresses at a crawl and has an unpropotionally small amount of the development in both plot and characters in the movie, despite the time it takes up. However, the pace and degree of intrigue the story inspires does spike up towards the middle, when the main characters life away from family and friends is fleshed out, and his thoughts on it come to light, though it sort of drifts off at the end into a lackluster ending.The setting is a good one, and distinct factions are set up, though I use the term distinct loosely as the narration does a poor job of saying who's who. This ties in to the political elements of the story, which feel somewhat tacked on, other than the fact that the war has seperated a character from their family. The movie tries hard to be profound and scientific, not as forced as a lot of anime, but certainly not as successful as "good" anime. Little is ultimately explained about the "science" of the movie, and you are often left scratching your head at why certain characters are behaving the way they are. The ending is so vague, though it touches on the theme of coping with the loss of loved ones, and dealing with distance. The themes of seperation and reconnection is the main thing the plot had going for it.I didn't take points off for it, but it's worth it to note there are absolute plot holes/logical inconsistencies as well. For example at one point someone steals something very important from a place that is very heavily gaurded, and their escape simply isn't shown, nor explanation given. Animation:The animation here gets the movie a lot of points. A lot of people probably could not cope with the slow start up the movie offers, without the allure of the animation. Thankfully from the slow to interesting parts the animation remains top knotch, with the exception of the weird plane graphics near the end. If you've seen 5 cm per second your in for more of the same goodness!Sound:The sounds here is good, though aside from some Violin, there's no real soundtrack to write home about. By no means bad or sub par audio in general.Characters:The characters were mostly misses. The points earned here are mainly for the primary character Hiroki, who has some interesting thoughts, and seems to have developed somewhat as the movie progresses. As for the secondary characters they develop minimally. Due to the nature of the story, the female character does not develop at all, and the other male lead certainly grows, but no legitimate development could really be said to have taken place. Most slow paced stories thrive off their characters, but there wasn't much to thrive off of here.Overall:Unfortunately a cool setting, great art, and interesting concepts are mostly squandered in this movie. I wanted to love it, the name itself is awesome, and I had no idea what to expect. But at the end of the day it is a very "meh" slice of life anime, that wanted to be more than it was. My recommendation only goes out to those who REALLY are looking for a relaxed slow pace slice of life anime that delves into dreams and "science" to beautiful animation with a theme of loneliness.
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