Wednesday, September 4, 2013

From Up On Poppy Hill — A Review

Miyazaki Hayao has done another drop-dead gorgeous movie, From Up On Poppy Hill. We watched it last night and were, as always, enchanted. The plot is so simple, that if I related it here, you'd wonder how anybody could make a feature film out of something so rudimentary. But that is one of Miyazaki's strengths. He sees, and expresses, the beauty in simple, ordinary things. This is a bit of a Japanese characteristic in general, as I've related in my review of The Secret World of Arrietty, but is especially common in Miyazaki's works. This applies to the plot and characterization, but also to the details in the animation. When Umi, the protagonist, cooks a meal, we see clearly how she measures the rice before she puts it into the pot, so clearly that we now know how to do it ourselves. But the point is the beauty of the operation. And the beauty of the work she's doing enhances her own beauty. This is because of another Japanese idea that Miyazaki expresses well, and it's also, come to think of it, sort of an American idea — the dignity and admirability of work, from digging a ditch to oil painting to running a corporation. What we over here often call the "work ethic," but there's also a particularly Japanese esthetic component to it.

As the movie starts, we see Umi, who is seventeen or eighteen years old, working. At her age, she's already responsible for keeping the books at her family's boarding house, and apparently doing most of the cooking, all this on top of going to high school. Her father died when she was young, and her mother's away in America, so for awhile, at least, she's basically running a business on her own. Miyazaki loves to show people doing useful work. Especially kids. Umi is way older than average for Miyazaki kids — Many of them seem to be ten or twelve, pulling their own weight in all kinds of jobs, taking responsibility for themselves and others (often younger siblings) at an early age. Miyazaki kids are good kids. You want to adopt them.  They work hard, behave ethically and bravely, and are cute as all hell.

Miyazaki is known mostly for fantasy movies like Kiki's Delivery Service or Princess Mononoke, and is very good at the genre, but I think in many ways he's at his best in more mundane movies, like this one, and the earlier Whisper of the Heart. There's no fantasy to it.  It's a tender and wrenching young love story, but nothing in it is edgy or strange, even. The plot turns on two things  High school students trying to keep an old clubhouse from being torn down by the school authority, and the developing love Umi and Shun have for each other. Both endeavors run into trouble, and conflicts have to be resolved, but interestingly, as is often the case with Miyazaki adventures, there are no villains. The problems and conflicts are circumstantial, not driven by malignancy in any way.

The action takes place in 1963-4, and I was somewhat taken aback when it struck me that the two kids are my age, being born right after WWII, and one plus in the movie is the period sensibility.  In those days, Japan was just beginning to get some of its confidence back, and the country is still doing a lot of rebuilding. The kids both lost their fathers in war, and their lives have been made much harder as a result, making them symbolic of the country as a whole. The adults in the movie have clearly had their lives severely limited by the aftermath of war, but their dedication to rebuilding their families and their nation is touching and admirable, and the kids are the same way.

Everything I've written up to here is true, but none of it does justice to this movie, which has to be taken as a whole, because picking it apart just weakens it. Everything fits together — the plot and subplot, the personalities, the Japanese character which permeates everything else, the choices made by the kids and their parents and other adults, all rolled up into what to me is the most beautiful version of animation we've accomplished so far. When you get the DVD, be sure you get one that includes the Japanese version, the English version, and the option of English subtitles. I prefer watching such things in Japanese with the subtitles on, because the Japanese adds to the sensibility for me, especially the intonation.  And you will want to see this more than once, so the English version will almost be like a different movie.  Enjoy. And then see Miyazaki's other stuff.  I have more about that in a recent post on Miyazaki's planned retirement. And here's the trailer:

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