|DVD From Up on Poppy Hill
Run time: 91 min
Genres: Animation | Drama | Family
Director: Goro Miyazaki
Writers: Tetsurô Sayama, Hayao Miyazaki
Stars: Sarah Bolger, Chris Noth, Anton Yelchin
A group of Yokohama teens look to save their school’s clubhouse from the wrecking ball in preparations for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.
|Plot Keywords: signal flag, loss of father, reference to the korean war, historical fiction, sister sister relationship|
Release Date: 16 July 2011 (Japan)
Budget: $22,000,000 (estimated)
Opening Weekend: $57,585 (USA) (15 March 2013)
Gross: $1,000,878 (USA) (14 June 2013)
I marvel at how simple this movie is. It's a romance, but there's no villain, there's no kissing, there's no skin shown. Yet I was at the edge of my seat over whether the hero and the heroine would get together. The incidents have no fantasy, no action chase scenes, no amazing settings, just everyday life at a seaside town, a boarding house and a school. It reminds me of Ocean Waves, another Ghibli movie that I absolutely adore. In comparison, the average Hollywood romantic movie seems so loud and garish. The actors and actresses in typical Hollywood rom-coms are the cartoons, not these animated people I've grown to care about in the span of an hour and a half. What are comparable movies? In the Mood for Love, from Hong Kong, and Scorsese's The Age of Innocence. I'm in love again.
Gorō Miyazaki returns after his 'not so impressive' Tales from Earthsea in 2006, with a wonderful adaptation of Tetsuo Sayama and Chizuru Takahashi's 1980s manga. After gaining negative reaction, including winning the 'Worst Movie' and 'Worst Director' awards in the 2006 Japan's Bunshun Raspberry Award, many have been apprehensive towards Gorō's next project. This criticism has certainly hurt Gorō reputation, but it all seems too critical. Many seem to forget that Tales from Earthsea was his directorial debut, and with his father being the great Hayao Miyazaki, it was always going to be tough for Gorō to make a spectacular first impression. However From Kokuriko Hill is a fantastic addition to Studio Ghibli's strong filmography and certainly proves Gorō Miyazaki has enough cinematic and animation knowledge to work under the prestigious banner. It's charming, funny and refreshing after the constant magical and fantasy approach of the studio, and Japanese animation in general.
The story takes place in Yokohama in 1963, where we follow High-School student, Umi Komatsuzaki. She looks after her grandmother, younger brother and sister, whilst completing the housework. Each morning she raises her 'Safe Voyage' flag, and heads to school. After witnessing a stunt by the 'Culture Club', Umi meets Shu, a fellow student who is 'second-in- command' of the club, and Shirou, the President of the Student Council. It is this new found friendship and relationship between Shu and Umi which builds and matures revealing an intertwining background and charming romance. Alongside this character-driven story is the struggle occurring between the high-school and the various students of the 'Culture Club'. The dilapidated building filled with history and memories is being threatened to be demolished. It's up to the students to convince the 'adults' that their creation and interests are preserved.
Written by Hayao Miyazaki and Keiko Niwa, the story is realistic and historic in theme. Gone are the cutesy, magical monsters and characters, as well as the environmental commentaries Studio Ghibli is best known for. Instead From Kokuriko Hill deals with the 'Rise of Post-War Japan' and the incoming Tokyo Olympics. The film certainly creates a fitting atmosphere. Shots of Japan's growing exporting and importing industries, office businesses and the hustle and bustle of Tokyo, clearly indicate the modern transformation of the country. We also experience the tragic nature of the Korean War and the impact on families and friends. The story also focuses on the widening gap/ split between traditional Japanese culture and the modern, business age. It was during this 'miracle' period where Japan looked forward, rather than back, and the contest between the 'school' and the 'students' dramatise this theme. The contrast between the old buildings and industries of Yokohama, and the trains, cars of Tokyo symbolise the changing ideologies and philosophies of the nation.
While it may sound very mature when compared to previous Studio Ghibli's films, it still deals with adolescents in a adult world, like Nausicaa and Laputa. However whilst magical characters and mysticism connect with the imaginations of children, From Kokuriko Hill uses its high-school environment and the sincere, pure nature of childhood relations to connect with younger audiences. It's the characters that help with the portrayal of the story and the bring these environments and themes to the screen. And they are fantastic. While not as memorable when compared to the likes of Chihiro (Spirited Away) and Totoro (My Neighbour Totoro), they still possess enough personality and charm for the audience to care for them. We are introduced to various different students, all whom have different personalities. However the film focuses on the main characters of Umi and Shu and therefore unfortunately leads to other characters not being fully explored or developed to the same extent. Umi is beautifully portrayed and developed. Her calm, mature exterior hides her damaged background. We experience the loss of her father, and the growing pressure and responsibility she has gained with her mother studying abroad. Meanwhile, the strong-willed, charming personality of Shu, also obscures an uncertain background that becomes clearer with the relationship with Umi. Gorō and the writers have carefully constructed the characters and story, achieving a steady pace that allows for a deeper exploration into From Kokuriko Hill's world.
The film looks amazing. After the spectacular animation of the previous Studio Ghibli production Arrietty The Borrower, it would seem impossible to top the artistic achievement of that film. However From Kokuriko Hill manages to. With its detailed interiors and sublime visual portrayal of Yokohama and the coast, its simply jaw-dropping to see the painstaking animation, artistic competence and talent that was involved in creating such an beautiful film. Clever sequences of animation liven up dull scenes like climbing stairs, as the 'camera' constantly follows the characters rather than having still 'shots'. Alongside the fantastic animation is the soundtrack which is brilliant as always. Satoshi Takebe mixes long-flowing orchestral pieces with lively, jazz-like tunes like those of Kiki's Delivery Service. It all adds personality to each scene without over-powering or distracting from the visual nature of the picture. Aoi Teshima 'Summer of Farewells' is a fantastic theme song, that remains in the memory well after the end of the film.
Overall, From Kokuriko Hill is a wonderful piece of animated cinema that certainly shows Gorō Miyazaki growing talent. Not only is it a beautiful work of art and song, but it's a triumph in story-telling and character development. While it isn't as memorable as the likes of My Neighbour Totoro and Spirited Away, and moves away from the magical essence of Studio Ghibli, it is still is impressively constructed and directed. And with the unfortunate inevitability that Hayao Miyazaki, Isao Takahata and Toshio Suzuki won't be around forever, it is reassuring that young artists and directors are successfully proving themselves as the future of Studio Ghibli.
Such is the greatness of Ghibli's backlog that each new release cannot hope to escape comparison with the old favourites. It has now been a full decade since the last truly great movie from the studio ('Spirited Away') and nine years since the last purely enjoyable one ('The Cat Returns'). All movies since had their moments, but their uneven quality whether it was a full-fledged fantasy like Howl's Moving Castle (2004) or more sedate affairs like last year's The Secret World of Arrietty (2010) did not make it easy for Ghibli's devoted following to love them unreservedly. Miyazaki Hayao's son, Goro, made his debut with Tales from Earthsea (2006), which wasn't received very well, prompting some to question whether Ghibli's future would be secure after Miyazaki Senior's inevitable final retirement. From Up on Poppy Hill is Goro's second feature, and while it is an accessible and enjoyable effort, it lacks the kind of profound detail and nostalgia that made Only Yesterday (1991) and Whisper of the Heart (1995) so special.
Set in Yokohama, Japan just before the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, Poppy Hill tells the story of Umi, a second-year high school girl who lives and works at a tenant house run by her grandmother. Her father was a sailor who was lost at sea during the Korean War and presumed dead; her mother is studying in the US and thus also an absent figure for Umi. Every morning she raises signal flags out on the garden which overlooks the ocean as a way to remember her lost father, before embarking on a daily routine rigidly structured around school and the chores she must perform at her home. One day she runs into a reckless, dashing senior named Shun, and soon allows her life to open up to the optimism and energy of the teen idealists who occupy Quartier Latin, a dilapidated school clubhouse where the more intellectually-disposed male students have set up various headquarters for their extracurricular activities. Umi helps out Shun with his newspaper printing, and ends up fighting alongside him and the occupants of the clubhouse to save Quartier Latin against the forces of change which holds sway in Japan. Meanwhile, unforeseen revelations about their families' past force Umi and Shun, who are increasingly drawn to each other, to reconsider their feelings.
The real-world setting and small-scale drama of Poppy Hill place the film in that category of the more contemplative and tranquil Ghibli animation alongside Only Yesterday and Whisper, but it doesn't come close to joining the two in the pantheon of the studio's most beloved hits. What those two movies did was to depict the everyday routine and the smallest trivial action with the same affection and wonder, not to mention painstaking detail, as it did flying dragons and wolf-gods; Ghibli treated things like sharpening a pencil or coming home after school like they were the most special things in the world, deserving of care and skill and attention – only we don't realize it. Only Yesterday and Whisper continue to resonate with their audience because they endeavoured to draw fantasy not from the outlandish but from the mundane, the normal, the everyday. They stand apart from the role-playing wish-fulfillment of countless animes and the likes of Harry Potter and The Matrix and suggest in their inimitable, tender way that we should treasure the lives we lead now, that they deserve the same kind of longing and wonder, and hinted at worthwhile fulfillment within real means.
Sadly, there's no such transcendental detail and affection in Poppy Hill nor the kind of daring whimsy which so invigorated classics like My Neighbour Totoro (1988) and Kiki's Delivery Service (1989). Thematically it's cookie-cutter safe, despite the fact that the post-war Japan about to begin a miraculous industrial rise would seem to be a rare and ripe backdrop for a more tellingly contextual study of a time of great change in Japanese society and the place in it for the young people and their environment that are drawn so handsomely in the film. There's great energy in Miyazaki's depiction of the students fighting to save the clubhouse due to make way for a more modern building, and the period detail of rural Yokohama as well as (more briefly) Tokyo in the throes of transformation is nicely realized and easily the best thing about the film. However, Miyazaki stops well short of dealing with the teen would-be activists and what they really represent: a poignant reminder of a lost generation of young Japanese idealists who ended up conforming to the overwhelming preponderance of materialism and political stagnation which came to define the rise of a new Japan in the Seventies and Eighties, and who would never again manage to bring to bear the sort of vigilant activism displayed in Poppy Hill.
Its breezy style is more reminiscent of The Cat Returns, but while that film was a concentrated distillation of the usual flight of fancy the studio specialized in and was aimed to literally take the audience on a short, thrilling ride, 'Poppy Hill' would have benefited from a more patient and intricate approach. There's certainly enjoyable set-pieces, like the girls cleaning up the dungeon-like school clubhouse which hitherto had been the exclusive domain of boys, or Umi going about her daily routine of grocery shopping and cooking for the students tenanting at her grandmother's house, but Miyazaki doesn't seem to have the confidence or patience to linger on each scene and let us observe what implications a country in transformation have on Umi; we just watch her get into one brief situation after another, few of which are compelling in plot or presentation, and then the film is over. Poppy Hill is certainly a diverting fare, endearing in places and easy to like, but it is in no way a return to form for the studio, and small improvement for the would-be pretender to Miyazaki Senior's throne.
After having seen Goro Miyazaki's Tales from Earthsea, I didn't have quite high expectations from this. Goro proved me wrong this time by creating a calm, sweet and tender anime. Hayao Miyazaki is the screenwriter and I was quite surprised that he moved away from his supernatural themes containing gods and flying castles, choosing to write something realistic. Yes, this "realistic" part is the heart of the entire film and it works so lovingly.
Ghibli once again captures the audience with beautiful animation and a captivating score. The film successfully re-creates the 60's world with meticulous details. Each and every character is energetic, whether he/she is the action or just the part of the action. As the film is about saving the school's clubhouse, we can "feel" that these teens really are trying to save it and you forget it's an animated film. Most of these characters are quite inspirational… The film is not epic or dazzling like teen oriented movies actually are. It's a simple nostalgic experience.
In conclusion, another simple and heart-felt film from Ghibli that you can enjoy with your friends and family. A good film for a relaxing weekend 😉
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