This post will contain spoilers for
The Place Promised in Our Early Days
There are some things in life that are impossible to understand fully until you’ve experienced it firsthand. Many of these entail some form of loss, such as loss of a beloved pet or loved one, or even loss of connection to a person.
This is the case with long-distance relationships. It’s impossible to understand the full weight of loneliness and longing that comes from a long-distance relationship unless you’ve experienced it yourself. Long-distance relationships are incredibly hard. They leave you isolated, not only because you’re separated from someone you love, but also because few others can truly understand how you’re feeling. Oh, people can empathize to a degree: we all know it’d be hard to not see a loved one for weeks… months… years on end. But a pain that deep is one few others have felt. It’s a daily anguish people in long-distance relationships carry, weighing them down like a lead ball. It’s a loneliness that almost feels as strong as physical pain—and can certainly be just as debilitating.
No matter how far the distance, being separated from a loved one is painful. But there’s some strange sort of beauty in the wait too—because the reunion will make it all worthwhile.
Makoto Shinkai is a master at capturing the agonizing beauty in loneliness… and the hope of seeing the other person again, if you can just hold on long enough.
While The Place Promised in Our Early Days revolves around a romantic relationship, its core theme pertains to relationships of any kind: friendships, family members, etc. This is a film is about holding onto our relationships—about the challenges we may face and the debilitating results if we let go.
When our relationships hit hard times, there are three choices we can make; these are presented through the film’s protagonist, Hiroki, and his friend Takuya.
The film begins with the two boys hard at work restoring a plane they’d found crash-landed in the no-man’s land between their home country of Japan and enemy territory. They accidentally let word slip about their secret project to their mutual friend (and Hiroki’s crush), a female classmate of theirs named Sayuri.
The three students have always been fascinated with the mysterious tower that pierces the skies that sits right on the border between the two countries. So when Sayuri learns about the plane, the three make a pact to fly to the tower together. However, over the summer, Sayuri simply disappears without a word or single goodbye.
Sayuri’s disappearance causes Hiroki and Takuya to drift from everyone they were once close to. Hiroki leaves their hometown for Tokyo, physically cutting himself off from anyone in his old life. Takuya remains closer… but disconnects himself emotionally from others.
Initially this appears to be natural reactions to losing their friend, as if both boys are “moving on” from the relationship. But it’s clear that both Hiroki and Takuya are responding in unhealthy ways to a broken relationship.
Running from Relationships
|The Place Promised in Our Early Days, 2004 ADV Films
Hiroki’s reaction is more obvious: running away from the broken relationship. As soon as Sayuri leaves, he moves as far away as possible, to Tokyo, where he hopes he can disappear into the crowds. He cuts off communication with anyone from his former life, anyone who had a connection to Sayuri.
Hiroki withdraws, but this leaves him with emotional turmoil that causes him to fall into a cold, numb depression just to cope with the pain of losing Sayuri.
“Every time I get to my room and shut the door, I feel a stabbing pain in my heart as if all the bones in my body are breaking through my skin. And I wonder when it was that I became burdened with something like this.
“I was living alone, and the nights felt long. When I couldn’t find anything to occupy my time, I would walk to the nearby station and pretend I was waiting for someone. When I got tired of that, I walked back to my room as slowly as possible. I had friends at high school, but I found that other than when I was wearing the uniform, I really didn’t want to be around them. Come to think of it, in a city of more than thirty million people, there wasn’t a single person I wanted to see or talk to.”
“It was as if I was holding my breath underwater… Cold, deep water. And it was like that every day. I’m the only one…”1
Using and Forsaking Relationships
|The Place Promised in Our Early Days, 2004 ADV Films
Takuya has a different reaction to losing Sayuri. Instead of outright physically running away, Takuya actually allows the loss of Sayuri to propel him through life, giving him direction. After Sayuri’s disappearance, he becomes even more fascinated with the tower they had planned on flying to. Takuya becomes part of a brilliant group of scientists who are studying the tower. Takuya’s cold, scientific obsession with the tower is a coping mechanism, driven by his loss of Sayuri.
Takuya, however, is chasing this connection to Sayuri for the wrong reasons. He clutches it so tightly that he loses sight of why the tower—and, by extension, Sayuri—was so precious to him in the first place. This results in him forsaking his relationship with Sayuri, symbolized by the moment when he becomes convinced the tower must be destroyed and gets involved with a group of terrorists who plan to blow up the tower.
The destruction doesn’t just extend to the tower, however: attacking the tower will spark war between Japan and their enemies, the Union, causing destruction to far more than just one structure.
Takuya is still willing to go along with this plan to destroy what he once held dear when it’s postulated that Sayuri—who has actually been asleep for the past 3 years—may be the reason the tower is in operation. The tower has been absorbing matter from our world and essentially destroying it, its radius of destruction ever-widening over the past three years. The tower must be destroyed to save the world, and Takuya is willing to sacrifice Sayuri to do so without even trying to save both her and the world.
Takuya’s reaction to the broken relationship causes just as much pain as Hiroki’s. Instead of running as Hiroki does, Takuya clings too tightly to memories of Sayuri, resulting in his destructive behavior. Takuya ultimately believes he must accept Sayuri’s loss. However, he handles this in an unhealthy way: he accepts the loss without even trying to fight for Sayuri. This leaves Takuya just as broken inside as Hiroki has become, and in a desperate attempt to find release from the pain, Takuya inflicts pain on everyone else around him—including Sayuri and even Hiroki when Hiroki comes to rescue Sayuri.
Hiroki has come to save Sayuri because he’s finally realized his mistake. The loneliness of trying to run from a relationship has been eating away at him… and deep in his heart, he knew he shouldn’t have run away. He knew it was vital he hold onto his connection to Sayuri and fight for the relationship.
Though Sayuri is trapped in an alternate dimension as a result of her narcoleptic state, her consciousness still lingers in the real world. Even over the course of the past three years, despite being separated by time and space, Sayuri and Hiroki have developed such a strong bond that each senses the other is still out there. Hiroki knows that Sayuri has been waiting all this time, praying he’ll move to rescue their relationship… before it’s too late.
And this is the third choice we can make for our broken relationships: we can fight for them.
Fighting for Relationships
|The Place Promised in Our Early Days, 2004 ADV Films
Hiroki ultimately decides to stop running, that his relationship with Sayuri is worth fighting for. He begins to hunt for her, desperate to find where she’s gone and what’s happened to her. He just misses her, arriving at the hospital room where she’d been only moments before. But rather than allowing this setback to deter him, he only becomes further emboldened. He won’t give up or run away again.
Hiroki meets with Takuya in a last-ditch attempt to find and save Sayuri, but at this point, as Hiroki’s determination to fight for the relationship is strongest, Takuya’s has waned the most. Takuya is convinced that Sayuri cannot be saved. He threatens Hiroki. He’s given up on his connection to Sayuri, allowing raw pragmatism to overcome the need for relationship.
But the film makes it very clear that while sacrifices must be made and practicality isn’t something to be demonized, it can’t come at the cost of relationships.
Upon giving up on his relationship with Sayuri, Takuya falls on a destructive path. When running away, Hiroki descends into a loneliness so painful “that [his] fingers, cheeks, fingernails, heels, and even the ends of [his] hair, [sic] everything aches from the loneliness.”2 In both cases, these choices cause pain, destruction, chaos, and disharmony. They don’t result in positive ways to deal with the loss; they only create more problems.
The choice to run and the choice to use and forsake the relationship not only hurt the boys, but also was slowly destroying Sayuri. She languishes for three years in an endless abyss of loneliness with only her memory of Hiroki and the promise to take her on the plane to comfort her. She has no idea that in the outside world, people are willing to callously throw her life aside on the off-chance it might help the situation there.
“A cold, deep wind blew there, a wind that seemed as if it had come from a distant universe. Even the air had the smell of a different universe… The sky… The clouds… A city in ruins… There are no people, no matter how far I walk. I’m cold… What am I doing in a place like this? Someone… Someone! Hiroki…”3
When the tides of life threaten to rip a relationship away from us, giving up on that relationship causes catastrophic results. This is why it’s so important to hold onto healthy relationships, to be willing to fight for them.
Not only this, but our refusal to fight for our relationships can extend out for miles around us, affecting many more people than just us, just as the tower threatens to swallow more and more in its wake. Only when we choose to do everything within our power to fight for the relationship can we destroy the destruction.
Things begin to change as soon as Hiroki decides to turn and fight for the relationship. Hiroki’s dogged determination even extends a hand of redemption to Takuya, a shining light that draws him from his dark path onto a healthy one. Seeing Hiroki’s resolve to do everything within his power to fight for his relationship with Sayuri, Takuya softens. At last he sees what destruction his choice has wrought and decides instead to fight along with Hiroki in his own way, helping him rescue Sayuri.
Handling Unhealthy Relationships
We must fight for healthy relationships; we must let go of unhealthy ones.
The children admire the tower. It granted them something to bond over and a dream to aim for. Later on, the tower gives Takuya direction in his vocation. But the tower is inherently dangerous and threatens to take away everything they love, just as unhealthy relationships devour everything like a black hole. In order to best fight for your healthy relationships, you must cut off the unhealthy ones.
Real life is messy, confusing, and full of pain and loss. Happy endings aren’t guaranteed, just as a happy ending isn’t necessarily guaranteed for Hiroki, Takuya, and Sayuri. Upon awakening from her narcoleptic episode, Sayuri forgets how close she and Hiroki had become through their intimate connection. Takuya is guaranteed to lose his job for helping rescue Sayuri. The world is plunging into war; people have already died.
But there is still hope.
As Hiroki flies the newly-reawakened Sayuri from the crumbling tower, he reassures her that despite all the trials they’ve undergone and all the struggles ahead, he will not stop fighting for their relationship. “It’s all right. You’re awake now,” he reassures her. “You can get it all back again, starting now.”
“We’ve lost the place of our promise in this world,” Hiroki muses, “but even so, our lives begin now.” 4
There is still hope. There is always hope.
Notes and References:
- The Place Promised in Our Early Days, VRV.co, directed by Makoto Shinkai and Yoshio Suzuki (2004; Chiyoda, Tokyo, Japan: ADV Films 2004).
All photos are screenshots taken from VRV and are used under US “Fair Use” laws. The Place Promised in Our Early Days property of ADV Films. And I am not affiliated with either of them.