In an alternate reality, Japan has been split into the North and South, and a mysterious tower has been built in Hokkaido that fascinates everyone around it, for it always seems just out of reach. Two teenage boys, Takuya and Hiroki are no different, and have begun building a plane called the Bella Ciela, that they secretly hope to one day use to reach the tower. The two meet and form a friendship with a girl named, Sayuri, who they both secretly develop feelings for. The trio spend an idyllic summer together, until one day Sayuri vanishes without a trace. The boys are heartbroken and abandon their plane project, until three years later they learn that Sayuri has been in a deep sleep and they need to take her to the tower to wake her again.
This anime started promisingly for me. The relationship we see develop between Sayuri and the two boys is touchingly innocent and Hiroki offers a brilliant internal monologue on this when he describes that with the plane project, Takuya’s friendship and the subtle promise of something more with Sayuri, his life seemed infinite and joyous. The interplay between the three works really well, and the jealousy both feel at the possibility that Sayuri might like the other more is always kept incredibly subtle and never overwhelms the friendship the three enjoy. It’s always nice to see a love triangle built that doesn’t involve a bust up over who gets the girl or another cliche drama to that effect.
Three years later, the boys have grown up, and are leading separate lives following Sayuri’s mysterious disappearance. Takuya is working at an Alliance scientific facility, researching parallel universes alongside a female colleague. They know that the tower replaces matter around it with matter from other universes, but they do not yet know why it does this for only a two kilometre radius. Sayuri is revealed to be in a deep sleep at this point, and when Hiroki finds out he approaches Takuya, wanting to finish building the plane and take Sayuri there to save her.
There are so many things I struggled to follow in this film, and that was its main downfall for me. It is revealed that Sayuri’s grandfather was the one who designed the tower, but I don’t know what relevance, if any, this has to Sayuri’s unusual ability to dream parallel worlds. The entire war backstory and the tower itself I also found really hard to follow. When the scientists discuss Sayuri’s narcolepsy, they talk about how she can fall asleep at any moment, without warning, but this never happened when she was with Hiroki and Takuya – it could have been gradually built up from the beginning but wasn’t. When Hiroki asks Takuya to help him save Sayuri, Takuya points a gun at him. This seems not only really out of character since the two were good friends, but it also doesn’t fit the dramatic buildup. For me, a verbal confrontation would have worked a lot better.
I also generally struggled to follow what was a dream, and what was a flashback, and what was an alternate world. The film tries to illustrate this to a degree by moving between colour and sepia tones, but sometimes it’s still really confusing and I’m still not sure whether some of Sayuri’s “dreams” were premonitions, alternate world scenarios, or flashbacks of things she had already seen happen. It doesn’t help that a lot of the cuts in this film are really sudden and unexpected, meaning you don’t always get to feel at home in a scene before you’re being moved on to the next moment.
One thing I can definitely praise this film for is its visuals. To say it was released over ten years before Your Name, some of the backdrops and light effects really stand up against its successor very well. Makoto Shinkai has a clear talent for creating stunning landscapes, with immense attention to detail for lighting, and the summer skies he creates here only reinforce the dreamlike infinity that his teenage protagonists feel in relation to their own lives as they languidly relax in the visual feast of their surroundings.
This anime set up a beautiful three-way relationship between its teenagers, which is unfortunately overwhelmed by a confusing, overblown sci fi plot that just isn’t given the clarity or explanation that it needed to really work. Shinkai’s themes here of war, nationhood, and two people stuck in parallel worlds who just want to find each other are in my opinion much more coherently and beautifully communicated in Your Name. That said, if you’re a big Shinkai fan it’s certainly worth giving this a watch, I just hope you find it easier to follow than I did.