Saturday, May 4, 2013

From Up On Poppy Hill

Japan's greatest director—and let's not mince words, here, that's what Hayao Miyazaki is: Japan's greatest director, animation, non-animation, living or dead—has been winding down for a decade or more, trying to cultivate new directors and animators for the next generation.

In the mid-'90s, for example, he wrote, produced and storyboarded Yoshifumi Kondo's premiere feature Whispers of the Heart, a romantic tale of a girl who discovers all the books she's checked out of the library have already been checked out by a boy. Unfortunately, Kondo died shortly after (of overwork, it is believed) and so never took over the reins from Miyazaki.

And now we have From Up On Poppy Hill, a film directed by Goro Miyazaki, the great master's son who, until relatively late in life stayed far away from animation projects precisely because of his father's legendary status (it is said).

And this film is more along the lines of Whispers than Hayao's own films, a literal (i.e., non-fantastic) film that takes place in the early '60s, where the post-war generation is clashing with the modernization and recovery represented by the '64 Tokyo Olympics.

The story concerns Umi, a 15-year-old girl who works in her grandmother's boarding house before and after school, taking care of boarders and her family. Her mother is away in America, and her father is a navy man who is lost at sea. Every morning she raises the signal flags for him, though, and one day, one of the ships in the harbor signals back.

Meanwhile, at school, she builds an attraction with Shun, a spirited boy who is spearheading the effort to save the school "clubhouse" from being torn down and renovated. When we first meet him, he's jumping from the roof of the house into a tiny pool as a publicity stunt that goes awry, at least in part because he's distracted by Umi.

I read one review where the reviewer thought that he was jumping solely to impress her, which—like the rest of his review—missed the subtlety of the development of their relationship. Ghibli films usually are subtle and deeply Romantic, but they're typically dressed in fantastic terms which are enjoyable on their own merit.

So,  yeah, none of this here. It's a teen melodrama, and your enjoyment of it will be based on how much you like the characters. Which we did.

Also, the whole concept of the "clubhouse" is a wondrous artifact of an earlier time, which for me made the movie worth watching by itself. It's basically an impossible tall house, in the Japanese style (duh), with a large open center, and each section of the house has been claimed by young men who are obsessed with a particular area of study.

Our hero is a literature/journalist-type, but there are chemists, archaeologists, anthropologists, and most amusingly a philosopher (voiced by Ron Howard!) who mix up in a melange of sweaty, smelly, academic boy nerdiness.

Can you imagine?

And then, to try to save the club house, they bring in the girls to clean up the place. They all work together, to clean and paint and repair, and there's a wonderful transformation that takes place on a group level. Though we don't know how it's going to turn out till the end, any more than we know whether Shun and Yumi will get together. (The movie throws a couple of curve balls at you that would make them hooking up impossible.)

We enjoyed it. The Flower was positive about it, though perhaps the least so of the three of us. Intriguingly, The Boy completely adored it. Not would I have guessed, but there it is.

If you're in the mood for a gentle, slice-of-life teen comedy-drama, this hits the spot.

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