Wednesday, April 10, 2013

From Up On Poppy Hill (Kokuriko-zaka kara)

FROM UP ON POPPY HILL (Kokuriko-zaka kara)     B- 
Japan  (91 mi)  2011  d:  Gorō Miyazaki                        Official site [jp]

It must be hard living under the shadow of one of the world’s greatest animation masters and co-founder of Studio Ghibli, made all the more difficult when the master looks disapprovingly upon the son’s progress, where Hayao Miyazaki refused to even speak to his son during the development of his first film, TALES FROM EARTHSEA (2006), featuring plenty of dragons and magic, receiving mixed reviews, including some worst director and worst movie of the year awards.  Perhaps the father was correct in his assessment that his son had yet to obtain the needed experience to direct a film.  After another five-year development process, using a team of over 500 animators, this is more of a collaborative effort between the two, based on Chizuru Takahashi and Tetsurō Sayama's 1980 manga Kokurikozaka kara, adapted by Hiyao Miyazaki and Keiko Niwa, where the younger Miyazaki even voices the part of the world history teacher and wrote the words to some of the songs.  While this is an improvement, this hardly ranks with the great works from Ghibli, lacking much of the intricately defined, personalized viewpoints of children, including their unique imaginations, often expressed through rhapsodic, child-like visions that distinguish Ghibli films from the more generic studio pretenders.  While the original source material was a 1980’s comic romance, Miyazaki has shifted the setting to the lead-up to the Tokyo Olympics in 1964, becoming something of a nostalgia piece, filled with plenty of postwar sentiment, including emotional shockwaves from the Korean War.  While it’s a reflection of nationalistic fervor from a different era, a time when children were missing one or more parents, where children themselves were forced to step in and fulfill obligatory adult roles, sacrificing much of their childhood in the process. 

The setting is Yokohama, 1963, while the focal point of the story is 16-year old Umi, a sophomore high school student who lives with her younger siblings and works in a boarding house run by her grandmother while her mother is away studying in America.  In almost every Ghibli film there is an absent parent, where Umi’s father was a sailor lost at sea during the Korean War, where living in a house high up on a hill, every morning she ritualisitically raises signal flags overlooking the ocean, presumably to help her father find his way home, a practice she’s continued as a way of staying connecting with her father’s memory.  In the absence of her mother, as the oldest daughter, Umi buys food and dutifully prepares all meals while also keeping abreast with her homework, often working late into the night, yet every morning, there she is again in her school uniform, eagerly optimistic about another day.  The breezy atmosphere is accentuated by the surprising instrumental musical theme of Kyu Sakamoto - Sukiyaki (Stereo Music Video) - YouTube (3:05), which reached America’s Billboard Top 100 in 1963 for 3 weeks, but also adds an overly familiar, heavily commercialized theme of the Americanization of Japan, a song with demeaning overtones, much like “La Cucaracha” is an inaccurate and disparaging reflection of Mexico.  A highly sentimentalized whiff of lost love, the song does accurately reflect themes of loneliness and abandonment, matching Umi’s growing infatuation with a senior boy at school, Shun, who writes a school gazette flyer protesting the scheduled demolition of the old Latin Quarter clubhouse to make way for the Olympics.  The setting of almost all after school extracurricular activities, the building is inhabited with an all-male sensibility, as it reeks of dust and disorganization, yet also contains much of the youthful optimism and idealism of the young lives that inhabit such dialipated quarters.  Umi’s presence, offering to help print the gazette, reflects some of the well-needed change, bringing a female sensibility to an old world architectural relic. 

Their budding romance is cut short by a drawn out and somewhat convoluted story about family lineage, where an old family photograph suggests their families may be linked, where a continuing series of flashbacks shed light on the past, where it was not uncustomary for neighbors to care for war orphans as if they were their own children.  Children were often spared the knowledge of family separation until they were much older, hoping to minimize the pain.  Umi grew so attached to her absent father that her family never had the heart to tell her the whole story, while Shun’s equally mysterious parentage has its own mythical revelation.  Umi decides to enlist the aid of several girls sports teams to help clean up the clubhouse, a major enterprise that requires a unique form of mutual cooperation, where the typically isolated sexes work together for a common goal, and where the community chips in as well donating lumber, paint, and construction equipment to give the place a new look.  When it’s still on the chopping block, more radical measures are needed, where they have to meet and make their case with the corporate heads in charge of the demolition.  While obstacles must and can be overcome through sheer persistence and by working together to build a better society, these concerns seem trivial compared to the loss and sacrifice of the postwar era, when an entire nation was traumatized by war.  Only brief flashbacks connect this film to the aftereffects of war, where the rest is a fairly safe and often uninspiring depiction of the nation’s reconstruction, relying upon international investments, like the big pockets of the American capitalists.  Unfortunately, this is the untold political reality behind the film, seen as exclusively all-male business interests that drive the spreading industrialization of the country.  Within this economic boom comes more progressive social values, where the next generation will need to discover its own voice, but instead the storyline struggles with the shifting secrets and revelations behind family history, becoming a muddled romance that never really gets started.  Before you know it, Shun will be off to the university and where will that leave Umi?  The film never concerns itself with such basic realities. 

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