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Hope for Ghibli’s Next Generation in "From Up on Poppy Hill"

by on August 23, 2011

I expect From Up on Poppy Hill (Kokurikozaka kara) will strike American Studio Ghibli fans as a little strange. It’s not set in a fantastic world of gunslinger samurai, flying pigs, tiny people, magic cats, Japanese gods or aquatic toddler Valkyries. Actually, its world isn’t fantastic at all, and its high school-aged heroes have more private (if no less precious) priorities: to save the school’s aging club building and find out the truth about their absent parents. So the common thread between this and past Ghibli films is something else: reflections on fading memories and nostalgia for disappearing treasures.

The release of a new Studio Ghibli film is still a big event in Tokyo. Months ago the theme song was already available on CD, and even before the release date a major department store opened an exhibit on The Art of Poppy Hill. Yet the fanfare for some recent Ghibli offerings has been muted relative to the glory days of Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away. The reason for that is age. Ghibli’s old masters, Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, are in their seventies, and they’ve been turning over the reins to a new, unproven generation of directors. The transition has been choppy. Last year’s Arrietty, directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi, was a delightful adventure, but there was reason to fear Poppy Hill wouldn’t measure up, as it was directed by Goro Miyazaki, Hayao’s son.

Goro Miyazaki’s first film, Tales from Earthsea, took a richly eccentric book series and turned it into just another moralizing fantasy cliché. In the breathtaking dragon designs and beautiful landscapes there were glimpses of the sensitive Ghibli soul Goro’s father has nurtured in his decades as the grand master of anime, but in the end the film merely pitted a sword-wielding hero against an evil wizard. Earthsea disappointed its creator, Ursula K. LeGuin, and angered critics so much that it actually won the Japanese Razzie for worst film. It failed to live up even to the standard of the elder Miyazaki’s weakest work, Howl’s Moving Castle, which for all its incoherence at least made bold storytelling and visual choices and gave us multifaceted, startling characters.

Fortunately, it appears that in trudging up Poppy Hill, Goro has also made it over anime’s learning curve. He hews much more closely to his source material, a manga series from the early 1980s, and (working with his father as a screenwriter) makes one of Ghibli’s most emotionally focused and intimate recent films.

Umi is a Ghibli heroine reminiscent of Taeko from “Only Yesterday” and Shizuku from “Whisper of the Heart.” It’s 1963, and hurried plans are underway for Japan’s great postwar coming out party: the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. In Yokohama, south of the capital, the 16-year-old girl Umi (which means “sea” in Japanese) is the hardworking head of an unusual household that includes her siblings, grandmother and a few adult lodgers. The movie opens to the sound of a metronome, and Umi’s life is carefully regimented: She wakes up early to put the rice on, replace the water and flowers at the family shrine, and raise maritime flags in the courtyard outside their house, built on a steep hill that overlooks the city’s bustling harbor. The flags mean “good voyage,” and raising them is a ritual of devotion to Umi’s father, who died at sea.

Every day, a passing tugboat raises a reply: MER (“sea” in French), which is Umi’s nickname. It’s an attempt by the 17-year-old Shun, one of Umi’s classmates, to gain her attention. Shun is a passionate, even reckless boy who eventually draws Umi into the fight to save the Quartier Latin, the school’s aging club activities building that’s been set for demolition to make way for new development. It’s an uphill battle, as a large faction of students think the building, full of stargazing otaku, rabble-rousers and weirdos, is little more than an eyesore.

In the early 1960s, the struggle to preserve tradition amid modernization, or even to figure out what was worthy of preservation, was a defining issue in a Japanese society balanced between an onrushing era of astonishing economic growth and the shadow of defeat in World War II. When Shun finds a familiar photograph in Umi’s room, memories of national trauma will threaten their budding romance and force them to face an emotional coming of age.

Actually, in its relatively personal scale and nostalgic motifs, Kokurikozaka has more in common with the work of the other Ghibli master, Isao Takahata, particularly his Only Yesterday, which includes flashbacks to the same time period. Visually, it is miles apart from Earthsea, which had overly simple characters and employed cheap animation shortcuts. Kokurikozaka recreates 1963 Tokyo in impressive visual detail, from Umi’s old-fashioned rice cooker to the packed, flashy alleys of Ginza at night (as also captured in Mikio Naruse’s heart-wrenching When a Woman Ascends the Stairs). The vibrant lighting of the city at night deserves special praise.

The romance between Shun and Umi is handled with a surprisingly mature tone.The star of the film’s designs is the Quartier Latin, which looks like just a creaky Western-style building on the outside but inside is a boy’s dream clubhouse, with buckets on strings transporting missives from department to department and massive muckraking banners hanging beneath its impossibly high ceiling. Books and telescopes and printing equipment and empty tea kettles are packed up against every wall. The colors are earthy reds and browns, the masculine contrast to Umi’s bright home of pastel hues, and it’s inhabited by a cast of oddballs with that brand of solemn, macho and completely earnest passion that can only be found in boys of this age. My favorite was the head (and perhaps sole member) of the Philosophy Club, a frighteningly huge senior (actually, he looks 35) who appears to live in an indoor shack cobbled out of wooden boards at the top of the stairs, and who defeats his own desperate attempts to recruit new freshmen by coming on far, far too strong. This film may not have any actual magic in it, but one immediately senses that this is a magical place, similar in kind to Totoro’s forest and Yubaba’s bathhouse if not as fantastic.

Yet the focus on a particular age of Japanese history is why I think Poppy Hill may be received as an oddity in the United States. Its references to ’60s Japanese singers (Kyu Sakamoto, Atsuo Okamoto), cars (Toyopet!), buildings (Sakuragicho Station) and events offer resonant hooks for Japanese viewers and foreigners who’ve studied the period, but may not do much for casual anime fans of my generation. You have between now and when this is released in the States to make an elderly Japanese friend to take along. It will enrich your experience by leaps, and your new friend will doubtless treat you to something delicious for having such fabulous taste.

The score is an odd mix of jazz, ragtime and piano. At one point, it features the classic Japanese pop song “Ue wo muite aruko.” Known unfortunately in the United States as “Sukiyaki,” it actually has nothing to do with beef stew. In fact the title means, “I walk looking up (so my tears won’t fall)”. It was a massive hit in a Japan emerging from poverty and defeat, though there would be many growing pains along the way. (Today it has added meaning in a country facing the aftermath of the Tohoku disaster.) And as the Yomiuri Shimbun pointed out in their review it’s also pitch-perfect for the journey of these two young people, who look up hopefully to the future even as they treasure their personal traditions and learn how to overcome the ghosts of the past. And it’s a good omen for a long future of lovely, thoughtful and moving films from Studio Ghibli.

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