“The Place Promised in Our Early Days” is one of those rare anime features that surpasses your expectations by caring more about their characters than the slick plot outlined on the back of the DVD case. It is a film that pretends to concern itself only with plot and turns out to be a dramatic study of friendship, loyalty, and, above all, promises made and broken. While the story may appear complex, it is surprisingly simple, and in its simplicity it attains a profundity few convoluted films—animated or otherwise—never grasp.

In a cold-war ravaged Alternate Japan, the north and south have been divided by political and ideological differences. While the South clamors to catch up with their rivals, technologically speaking, the north has built a massive tower on the DMZ that reaches the heavens. It is said that this tower represents an area that has become an alternate dimension. Following a concept that for every decision every being makes in one part of the universe, and equal and opposite decision is made in alternate dimensions, which causes those dimensions to branch off and, in essence, create a new alternate universe.

Focusing on two ambitious dreamers, Takuya and Hiroki, long time best friends who aspire to build their own airplane and fly it to the mysterious spiral-tower on the border, “The Place Promised in Our Early Days” tracks their close friendship through years of ambition, betrayal, and redemption.

When they befriend Sayuri, a girl who crushes on one and becomes part of their clique, a rift is slowly torn between their friendship. Then tragedy hits. Sayuri has an accident and is thrust into a coma, and Takuya and Hiroki’s dreams of building a plane fall apart.

The story fast forwards a few years later and we’re reintroduced to Takuya and Hiroki, who have been involved in the North/South conflict, though in drastically different ways.

While the south struggles to catch up with the north’s technology, it is discovered that the tower is a device that can link parallel universes, replacing one with the other. While Sayuri’s still in a coma, it is learned that she has a link to the tower and as long as she remains in her coma state, the tower will never do what it was designed to do. But Hiroki, who, after she fell into a coma, abandoned his dreams and moved to the city, learns of her fate, he returns to the place once promised her and vows to save her and humanity.

No synopsis can really do this film justice. It is more than a science fiction film; it is a heartfelt drama; it is a study of loneliness and melancholy; friendship and betrayal.

Written and directed by Makoto Shinkai, who’s created the wonderful short film “Voice of a Distant Star,” “The Place Promised in Our Early Days” marks the beginning of a brilliant and promising career. Like Hayao Miyazaki, Shinkai is capable of creating fantastic yet believable worlds and filling it with characters with whom we sympathize, relate, and, ultimately, believe in. This is a powerful movie, and I for one can’t wait to see what Shinkai cooks up next.

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