In Aomori, on the northern tip of Tohoku and across the Tsugaru Straight from Hokkaido, Hiroki, Takuya, and Sayuri grow up in a world that has veered toward a different path than our own. The Union, developed from Communist states, has grown—not diminished—in power, and now occupies Hokkaido, restored to its former name of Ezo, where it has erected a mysterious white tower which reaches high above the skyline. The trio dreams of visiting the tower in an airplane the boys are crafting, but when Sayuri disappears from their lives, their own paths become broken and meandering. Despite their separation and the Union and a U.S.-Japan alliance approaching war, the three remain bonded to one another, and to the tower, which continues to beckon them near.
As Makoto Shinkai’s films continue to dominate the the anime landscape, his previous works are being revisited, including this Yen Press novel adaptation by Arata Kanoh of The Place Promised in Our Early Days, his first feature-length film. Those who are relatively new to Shikai’s works may be surprised by the subject matter and style of this one—the fascination with themes of distance and separation, and a frequent desire to bathe his works in a cold tone, mark Place Promised perhaps more strongly than any of his other works. But also noteworthy is that the film is the most literary of his movies, and thus adapts well to book form. Kanoh fills in gaps from the movie and creates his own inner world among the characters, while staying extremely faithful to the original.
To create a strong novelization is no easy feat. A review of a novelization should refer to the original work, because it’s irrevocably connected and, no matter how well it stands on its own, functionally a companion piece. With a Shinkai work, that means the masterful animation for which he’s known, and the music which he emphasizes, are lacking. Instead, Kanoh must work doubly hard, both weaving together a world as all writers of fiction must do, but also somehow conveying the masterful images from the storyteller. While lacking somewhat with the latter, he does well with the former—as much as he’s able, confined by Shikai’s original work. While the director is an immense talent, his early period was filled with movies that exuded the above-mentioned cold tones that were rarely balanced by warmth from its characters; he’s rectified that by instilling much more life into his characters in recent movies, and has also moved mostly away from overly sad tales, but these issues are present in The Place Promised in Our Early Days—it’s difficult to care for Hiroki, Takuya, and Sayuri when we don’t really know much about them or their relationships with each other. Kanoh, however, fixes that—somewhat.
Both the movie and book are told from the first-person perspective of Hiroki, but later shift into third-person (a more marked and disconcerting change in the novel); until then, and then when it returns, the written work pulls us into Hiroki’s world. Perhaps the movie’s least-developed character, he’s by far the most here, and to good effect. The deep sadness he feels is well conveyed by Kanoh, who instills in him personality far beyond “depressed boy,” and even delves deeply into the relationship only hinted at in the movie with a now-named character, Rika. In fact, Rika is such a lovely and important presence that she overwhelms Sayuri, whose development suffers most in the adaptation. Because she disappears so early in the work, the author must find a way to give her life. Unfortunately, stuck within the confines of the story, he attempts to do so only through what become repetitive dream sequences. And so the character we must care most about is the one we care for least, knowing her as little as we do.
The sci-fi element is also problematic. The shift in the film seems far more natural than the book, which is so heavily focused on relationship in its initial chapters. When the story changes gear and becomes about both rescuing Sayuri (missing in both body and soul) and severing her connection to the parallel worlds-inducing tower, the book becomes less interesting, only passable. It could be that the topic demands more of us now when the idea of divergent worlds has become so commonplace; the science here feels elementary, even to this less-than-scientific minded reviewer. It’s as if Kanoh did heavy research into three or four topics, elaborated on them a bit in the novel, and then left it at that. The lack of expertise is evident.
Kanoh shines, however, in growing out the relationships. The boys have a remarkably complex and authentic friendship (and it seems hinted, maybe even more) with one another. In addition to time spent on their coming together, the boys’ schism is explored further than in the film, and makes for greater drama when they are separated and must decide whether to come back together again to help Sayuri. And the aforementioned relationship between Rika and Hiroki is dynamic and compelling as well. Far more than a throwaway (and it, unfortunately, feels that way once it’s run it’s course), the several dozen pages outlining how they affect one another were the most engaging in the entire book. I greedily consumed those pages and began hoping for an ending I already knew was not to be.
And speaking of the ending—the most drastic change from film to book, as it was with Voices of a Distant Star, is how it ends. The novel is given a proper denouement, and it is quite somber, though not empty, which is how Shikai too often came across in the first part of his career. The book ends with an essay by Masaki Enomoto which explains that the ending for the three characters is rather “hopeful.” That’s a strange word to use from my vantage point, but upon further inspection, I believe Enomoto to be correct. Hiroki, Takuya, and Sayuri came together intensely for a short period of time; the novel lets them grow and breathe as it ends, knowing that life is much longer than what is characterized within the book’s 280 pages. And so, too, for any of us who have encountered tragedy and loss.
Filled in by the novel, The Place Promised in Our Early Days is a fuller, deeper, and more heartwarming look at how relationships can transform us and can rescue what was lost. But even without the original work, and though flawed in the previously mentioned ways (and in smaller ones not mentioned, like a sometimes curious lack of subtlety and an occasionally pretentious tone), the novelization is a quick and compelling read that will speak both to fans of science fiction and anime—a converging point that’s unfortunately all too rare.