I first came across Makoto Shinkai more than 10 years ago, through the release of his film 5cm/s. Immediately after watching it I checked out his previous films "The Place Promised in our earlier days" and "Voices of a distant star." While the former was quickly forgotten, the latter and 5cm/s stuck with me for weeks after. Over the years I've since watched everything else the man has released and while his films have varying levels of impact, I still find myself returning to watch that first pair of films, time and time again. With each repeated viewing the experience somehow becomes more, rather than less powerful, a trait that very few stories manage to achieve. Last year I had high hopes for a Chinese animation to finally reach a similar level of impact. Flavours of Youth had all the ingredients to create a delicacy: some great, well established directors, an international release with a decent marketing push and even the same animation studio who have made all the past Shinkai films... yet when I watched the movie I found it to be a visually enticing, yet ultimately flavorless offering. This year however, another Chinese animation made it's way to release and while Flavours of Youth had been highly anticipated, this one was instead a dark horse, already having gone through production hell, receiving mixed reviews upon initial release and even going through a second release to fix some of its problems. So with low expectations I found myself watching a movie that barely had any fanfare or acclaim outside of China and, shockingly, found this to be exactly the film I wanted to see a year ago. I laughed, I cried, I reflected on some of the best and worst moments in my own life and ultimately ended up watching it a second time only 2 days later. I wish I could tell you that Crystal Sky of Yesterday is a perfect film and leave it at that, but rather, the movie is broken, inconsistent and occasionally offputting, but perhaps it's because of that, that this movie manages to perfectly capture the hectic highs and lows of adolescence as well as the lingering regrets we all feel when looking back as an adult. It's a movie that takes the most ordinary subject of growing up and manages to make it unnaturally beautiful.
The first thing I need to mention when it comes to Crystal Sky of Yesterday is the animation. If you were to watch a trailer for this movie you would likely assume that the animation for this film is on a similar level to Makoto Shinkai's own films. For sure, there are moments that Crystal Sky of Yesterday lives up to those expectations. Most of the scenes that shine in this movie also feel like they have taken a lot of inspiration from Comix Wave's unique blend of traditional and digital effects. Sweeping environmental shots that blend traditional 2D and 3D objects as well as incredible attention to detail on lighting, raindrops and water in general call "The Garden of Words" to mind. The problem is that between all these incredibly detailed and beautiful scenes there are just as many if not more that feel cheap and rushed. Characters will occasionally move at low framerates or simply appear to glide across the screen without realistic movement. Environments will appear frozen in time despite the fact that the more detailed scenes will take the time to animate even the smallest environmental details. Perhaps worst of all is how often the level of detail will change within a single scene. You can be enjoying one of the most beautiful shots you've seen in 2D animation, followed by witnessing low framerate characters stutter across the shot followed by a return to detailed animation and then right back to low quality as soon as you're enjoying the more detailed visuals. It's this kind of whiplash effect that leaves you appreciating the beautiful visuals all the more, yet also noticing the cheaper ones very clearly which breaks the viewer's immersion continuously. You can even see a moment in which the main girl's character design changes in the middle of the scene from the manhua-based medium length, loose hair, and longer pony-tail they ultimately went with for this adaptation.
Theres a reason of course that the animation quality seems to continuously shift from scene to scene. As I said in the intro to this video Crystal Sky of Yesterday had a bit of production hell on the way to its release. While the movie took 3 years to produce it was also far too much of an undertaking for any single Chinese animation studio to bear. As such the film became a huge collaborative effort from tons of different studios. In fact, the president of the original animation studio: Guton made it clear on social media that 70% of all the 2D animation studios active in China at the time had in some way contributed to the production of this one movie. It's no surprise then, that from scene to scene it often feels like a completely different production. What shocked me though, was how little the animation inconsistencies disturbed my viewing by the end of the movie. I certainly noticed them, and in certain scenes that felt like they could have been powerful if animated properly I felt a little let down, but the longer you watch the film and appreciate the story and world, the less you mind the inconsistencies and even begin to embrace the quirkiness. In a way it almost reminds you of the feeling of nostalgia and looking back itself. In your memories, you tend to remember only the standout moments of your life, whether bad or good with all the average moments in between being lost to time. Crystal Sky of Yesterday's animation and even its story tends to summon up a similar feeling of looking back on just the best and worst parts of your own life.
Of course, I wont pretend that this was intentional or that it wouldn't have ultimately been better if every scene in the film had the maximum level of detail and quality to it. Similarly the storyline for this film while incredibly impactful is ultimately weak on plot points and rushed in its initial pacing with some other moments feeling drawn out and overly extended. The four main characters are only forced together by a series of coincidences and seemingly within minutes of knowing each other they're instantly closer than anyone else in the class, happily spending the entire day together with very little actual reasoning. Ultimately the story does turn out to be one of the best things about this movie. Despite the rushed beginnings and occasional dragged on scenes the storyline of Crystal Sky of Yesterday does an incredible job of telling a grounded realistic story in a beautiful and heart warming way. At no point throughout the movie did I feel like things became overly dramatic as so many other teen dramas do. Rather the storyline is simply the tale of 4 high school students in the 90s as they approach adulthood and have to decide what they will consider important in their lives.
What's so beautiful about the handling of this storyline is the many different angles it approaches this simple and inevitable plot-line from. If you've seen any western coming of age story you're likely used to the plotlines where romance and passion ultimately win, over the more serious and adult pursuits forced upon adolescents. Meanwhile if you've watched many Japanese spins on the genre you're likely more used to the more reality grounded aspects of the story being tossed to the side and ignored completely: moments that would be set during classes and studying time instead being skipped over to focus on the more interesting parts. Chinese spins on the genre on the other hand often take the exact opposite direction, movies like the previously mentioned Flavours of Youth and 2018's Big Brother starring Donnie Yen focus almost entirely on the academic side of things, suggesting that doing well in the Gaokao, the test that decides a high school student's future university and job prospects, is the only thing they should be focused on during that age.
Crystal Sky of Yesterday breaks this mold and offers a much more well rounded approach to adolescence and focusing on the future. Our 4 separate characters, while each at the same age are at completely different levels of mental development. Theres Qi JinXuan, the hot-headed son of the director of education for the entire region, already mentally checked out of school and instead ready to move forward with other parts of his life. Yao ZheTian, our protagonists love interest, who has thus far in life simply followed along with her parents wishes -both of whom work in education themselves. As such she yearns to escape from the bonds of education and societal expectations and inspires that same sort of passion in those around her, despite ultimately feeling the most trapped herself. Then theres our main protagonist, Tu XiaoYi, a student who is pretty terrible schoolastically and unlike those around him who are so focused on their future, he tends to have his head in the clouds and his eyes on Yao ZheTian, seeing her as the only thing he cares about. It is through these three characters, and a fourth who doesnt receive nearly enough screentime that Crystal Sky of Yesterday explores the many different types of growing up and developing from a child to an adult. With beautiful visuals, an astounding soundtrack and a great cast of voice-actors, the movie achieves exactly what it wishes to over its audience. I have no doubt that by watching this movie you will find atleast one character that you will relate to, perhaps even a little uncomfortably close to home. And I say uncomfortably, because in my personal case I found myself connect not just to the highs and the strengths of the characters but also way too closely to the lowest points of each character and their regrets that linger in their lives even a decade after their high school years.
And this, is where I'm going to have to throw down a spoiler warning. Up to this point I would consider this video a spoiler free review and recomendation to atleast give Crystal Sky of Yesterday a chance. In the description for this video I'll leave you a link to the English subtitled version uploaded by the brilliant MovingLines subs, as well as the official Chinese subbed release on Iqiyi to support the original. I'd advise you to try the movie if you've heard enough to win you over already and come back to this part of the video only if you have seen it or if you dont mind spoilers and need some more in depth discussion on the themes and impact this film left on me personally. So with that said, let's discuss the feelings this movie inspired within me. The very same feelings I felt around a decade ago when first watching 5 cm/s.
What likely hit me the hardest when it comes to the storyline of Crystal Sky of Yesterday is the way in which the characters grow and develop through the film. While most of the runtime focuses on the characters final month or so of high school, there are also glimpses throughout the film of Tu XiaoYi more than a decade onward, having returned to his hometown and dealing with another particularly rough period in his life. One of my favourite things about 5cm/s was how the story became more relevant to me as I grew older due to the large timespan it covers. Crystal Sky of Yesterday captures this same feeling, though in this case I'm not watching the movie as a 15 year old, going through high school myself, but instead as a 27 year old, much like Tu XiaoYi able to look back to my life a decade ago and wonder about the various what ifs in life.
I've already mentioned how the three main characters of the story are each at different stages in their mental development during their summer spent together, but what shocked me on a personal level was realizing just how closely I related to each of them at once. I've been the youth who simply followed along the path laid out to me by my elders, I've been the love struck fool who cares more about a woman than any other thing in life and I'd like to think that if not now then someday soon I'll have a clear course set out in front of me to reach the dream that I'm already working to achieve. But as I said earlier, rather than the characters strengths, it is their flaws that ultimately remind me of myself and give me an all too personal connection to the story of Crystal Sky of Yesterday. Towards the end of the film theres several lines that have resonated so strongly in my heart that I've been unable to forget them.
"You have to remember, if you find something that you love, even if it doesnt work out, loving it can make you shine." This line came out at the moment that Tu XiaoYi finally gave up on his own love for Yao ZheTian. While he was saying the words to make her feel better they were ultimately resonating within his own heart and at the same time a perfect message for the viewer to take away from the film. Tu XiaoYi did his best work and became his best self when he was working on the blackboards specifically because he was filled with passion while sharing these times with Yao ZheTian. While it ultimately didn't lead to the romance he wanted, it did guide him toward a bright future of his own involving art that he otherwise may have let slip by. At the same time his artwork managed to inspire not only the girl he loved but also all the other students within the school and even the teacher who seemed so otherwise devoid of passion. It was also beautiful that he said these words to Yao ZheTian while at the railroad crossing, a perfect metaphor for two objects going in separate directions but also the original spot that he realized he had fallen in love with her at the beginning of the movie. It's a beautiful and fitting end to the pair's relationship at the same point it began, yet with both having deeply influenced one another for the better.
"If at that point I'd said see you, would I have been able to see them again?" This phrase combined with the final epitaph as the credits begin to roll "Where are they? How are they? I already miss them," perfectly sum up the feelings that linger when you end a relationship the wrong way. In Tu XiaoYi's case it was the fact that he was so jealous of Qi JinXuan that he simply avoided ever greeting him or getting a chance to bid him farewell on their last day together. This is definitely another one of those parts of the story that hits a little bit too close to home for me personally. At each stage of my life the transitions from secondary school to college, college to university and ultimately moving from England to the United States I've ended up losing contact with some of the people that I considered my closest friends. While we dont talk anymore I still find myself occasionally return to the Facebook account I never use just to check how their lives are going, an option that the generation shown in Crystal Sky of Yesterday never had. While the memories of my friends have inspired me in so many different ways throughout my life I often wonder if any of them remember me at all. It seems the same way way the end of Crystal Sky of Yesterday, as we discover Tu XiaoYi has kept his memories with him through life, yet never reached out to his old friends. Thus the after credits scene of this film had me absolutely crying my eyes out. While Tu XiaoYi may never know how his friends are doing, we as the viewer get that ultimate satisfaction of seeing them each living a great life of their own and still remembering him too.
Theres also just a ton of fantastic moments in this film that show just how much attention to detail and care was put into its production. Watching it a second time really helped me to see all the little hints and clues that were slipped in before the big Qi JinXuan revelation. In every scene you see him watching Tu XiaoYi closely and after you discover just how much of a role he played in his life it brings up some interesting theories. Equally beautiful was realizing the artistic metaphors that played out throughout Tu XiaoYi's dreams. His path through life being represented by a paper aeroplane, that unlike all the others which seemed to be so sure of their destination was instead lost, confused and ultimately crashes down his his hometown of Lan Xi. That bright and colorful world of Tu XiaoYi's in contrast to Yao ZheTian's own world devoid of any light as she performed her own art in front of others. It really used the animation medium to it's full effect to Express otherwise complicated scenarios that take place in Lan Xi. Speaking of Lan Xi the amount of effort that this production went through to recreate the town both back in the 90s and in the modern day was astounding. You can really tell how much the directors and everyone working on this film gave all of their effort to make it as powerful and enthralling as possible.
So Crystal Sky of Yesterday will likely not go down in history as the making of a new visionary director like 5cm/s or Voices of a Distant Star did. While the production managed to capture a lot of the feeling of a Shinkai production, the polish wasn't there and the ultimate product ended up a broken and inconsistent thing. Nonetheless I feel like everyone who worked on this film deserves to feel proud and as we know there were a LOT of people who worked on it. This became more a project of the Chinese Animation industry as a whole rather than just one studio and it ended up feeling like another step forward for the industry as one. With a little more work and touching up Crystal Sky of Yesterday could have been an incredible film, able to rival the impact of Shinkai or Ghibli but even while falling short, it still proves itself to be a beautiful and powerful experience. An experience which I've already returned to for a second viewing and will likely watch even more in the future. The movie ends with some of the staff members sharing their own dreams and regrets that have guided them down their lives and reminds the viewer that if you have something you want to go for... you just need to do it, no matter how long it takes. Tu XiaoYi took 10 years to finally get to the point where he could make his dream come true and it's quite possible that Yao ZheTian is still searching for hers or has simply placed her hopes and dreams into her daughter's future. So even a currently unemployed 27 year old like me may find my way to my goals someday, Haha. But maybe not, life isnt as beautiful as this movie. But when we do ultimately get to our destinations, we do all have the chance to look back. We each get out own personalized, beautiful and imperfect Crystal Sky of Yesterday.
Yeah I know that was cringey as hell, I dont care. Let me know in the comments section what you guys thought of this movie and the video itself. I spent 3 weeks writing this script because as I said it hit a little close to home but I really wanted to get my views down properly for other people to hear and to share word about this movie which affected me so much. So if you did like this video then please do leave a like and share it with anyone you think should really see this beautiful movie. If you're new here and want to see more news, reviews and deep dives into the world of Chinese Animation then consider subscribing to stick around because I'd love to have you. Either way, thank you for watching this video until the end... and I will see you guys next time.