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Posts Tagged ‘From Up On Poppy Hill’

Hard to believe though it may seem, I am not globally respected and adored, and so my ability to put myself in the place of anyone who is is therefore somewhat compromised. However, it’s impossible not to imagine that being so loved has some effect on you – whether that effect is simple complacency or something rather more eccentric.

Everyone loves Studio Ghibli, and with good reason: with Disney and the other American studios long since having abandoned traditional hand-drawn animation, the Japanese production house is fighting a spectacular rearguard on behalf of the form. They make the best hand-drawn animated features in the world. (They make virtually the only hand-drawn features in the world that anyone pays any attention to, but even so.)

And yet I wonder whether Studio Ghibli’s unquestioned mastery of the form, the sheer brilliance of their work, and the deserved acclamation that has resulted, haven’t combined to create an enterprise which is slightly… well… oddball in some of its ideas. Long-term readers may recall my last encounter with a Ghibli movie, the re-released Grave of the Fireflies: an exquisitely assembled full-length cartoon about the collapse of society during wartime and infantile death by starvation. To say I found this a difficult film to come to grips with is a bit of an understatement.

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Never mind. The latest Studio Ghibli production, From Up On Poppy Hill, got its UK release the other weekend, and on the surface looked to be a much more conventional affair. Directed by Goro Miyazaki, this is a nostalgic romance set in Yokohama in 1963. The Olympics are coming, symbolising a new dawn in Japanese society after the privations of the post-war period, but the young people of the town find themselves caught between the promise of the future and the demands of unresolved history.

Central to the story is Umi, a thoroughly decent, slightly lonely girl who looks after her grandmother’s boarding house. As the film opens she seems to have lost herself in the rituals of domestic life – but also maintains her tradition of raising signal flags outside the house, an attempt to contact her father who was lost at sea during the Korean War.

But time marches on and Umi finds herself involved in a heated controversy at her school: should the old clubhouse, embodying so much tradition and so many memories as it does, be torn down to make way for a new building? Many of the male students think not and are agitating to save it. She finds herself drawn into their efforts, mainly thanks to the persuasive talents of Shun, one of the boys.

This is an extremely sweet, almost totally innocuous film, and so the chemistry that sparks into existence between Umi and Shun is extremely understated: almost to the point of the viewers being invited to imagine it for themselves. Nevertheless, U-certificate romance does seem to be on the cards until the youngsters make the unsettling discovery that Shun’s father was lost at sea during the Korean War, too, and the family photo Shun has of him is identical to that of… now wait just a cotton-picking minute here!!!

Yes, it’s another jaw-droppy-open moment in the annals of Asian cinema: this is a sweetly romantic, U-certificate melodrama about the perils of falling in love with your own long-lost sibling. Death from malnutrition… Genetic Sexual Attraction… is it me or does the subject matter of these naturalistic Ghibli productions suggest people somewhere at the top of the studio are making bets with each other? ‘Okay, Toshiro, I managed to make a cartoon about senile dementia, now pay up.’

Having said that, the sibling-romance element of the story really did grab my attention – the rest of the story, though executed with Ghibli’s customarily gorgeous virtuosity, is a little bit too nice and lacking in incident. Everyone is a charming, decent person, Yokohama is a lovely place to live (it still was when I last went there, by the way: like Blackpool but with more skyscrapers), big businesses are run by kindly patriarchs who listen to reason, and so on.

You’re never really in much doubt as to how the save-the-clubhouse plotline is going to work out, but I really couldn’t be sure which way the sibling-romance story was going to go: surely they weren’t going to…? But then again, this is a Japanese movie, and they do things magnificently differently over there.

Now, obviously, I can’t tell you exactly how the story works out, but I will say I found the manner of its resolution to be the most disappointing part of the film. The climax is very abrupt and almost unforgivably oblique – there’s a big scene where the plot is resolved, but not the following scene where the characters react to this and express their emotional response, as you’d expect in a normal romantic drama. I’m not sure it’s even 100% clear quite what the conclusion is.

Studio Ghibli’s grasp of the narrative virtues is usually so rock-solid that this kind of climactic fumble came as a real surprise. As a result, I can’t imagine anyone would claim this is one of their best films. Nevertheless, it does look as absolutely beautiful as you would expect, there’s surely nothing in the story that could give offence to anyone sensible, and it at least has a certain sort of peculiar novelty value. The results are strangely charming (and perhaps a little charmingly strange), and I suspect this, in addition to the Ghibli cachet, will be enough to find the film a responsive audience.

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