Review – From Up on Poppy Hill

Posted on February 28, 2012 by

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In the framework of the Brussels Anima Film Festival, I went to see Studio Ghibli’s latest offering コクリコ坂から (From Up on Poppy Hill). Here’s my review.

From Up on Poppy Hill, Studio Ghibli’s latest film, is one of transition. Written by Miyazaki père, yet directed by Miyazaki fils, there is a notable change of style from Ghibli’s earlier releases. The confident pace, underscored by the jazzy soundtrack marks the emergence of Goro Miyazaki as a possible successor, after his disappointing first attempt to emerge from his father’s shadow with Tales from Earthsea. Passing the baton from father to son is an apt metaphor for the film, which contemplates the role of memory and responsibility in postwar Japanese history. Set in 1964, the film portrays a nation poised on a knife-edge, not yet ready to confront its past, but eager to embrace the future at whatever cost, symbolised by the dizzying rebuilding of Tokyo ahead of the 1964 Olympics. The film is loyal to Ghibli’s core themes: nature, harmony, environmentalism, childhood and imagination, yet grounds them more solidly in Japanese society itself. Spirited Away and My Neighbour Totoro take inspiration for their flights of fantasy in Shintoist animism and mythology, resurrecting forest spirits, river gods and native demons, while other Ghibli films are based on European stories or fairytales. In From Up on Poppy Hill, the fantasy comes in the form of Japan’s recent past, and the wonder lies in the discovery of suppressed memories of events during the recent war.

The Tokyo Olympics, almost two decades after the end of hostilities, signalled Japan’s arrival onto the world stage. For the second time. After the Meiji Restoration, Japan modernised with alacrity, absorbing Western ideas, politics, and architecture. The process culminated in the creation of an Imperial power, aping Europe’s own childish expansionist ambitions, and the extension of war to the Pacific. In 1964, the country was to rise again, recast as a beacon of apolitical capitalist modernity, shifting tutelage from Europe to the United States. The film takes us back to the moment of transition, before the shining modernity and sleek technology, with which Japan came to be identified.

The film cleverly alludes to its real message by structuring the narrative around a dilapidated old building, the student’s clubhouse, known as Quartier Latin. The building itself is an architectural symbol of the influence of European ideas on Japanese culture; a wooden structure, yet in a very European idiom. Even more evocative, however, is what goes on inside. The impassioned pursuit of philosophy, astronomy and literature makes the clubhouse seem like a microcosm of European humanism; a corner of the Renaissance in small-town Japan. The name is French, and there is indeed something very Left Bank about the raw mix of nostalgia and optimism. The student debate mirrors the turbulent politics of the 1960s, as Japan prepared to shed its identity and unquestioningly mimic the West. The imminent destruction of the clubhouse will ironically replace the flowers of Japan’s first European borrowing with another Western import: large-scale modernisation and renewal. Paradoxically, in the West, the next generation are about to launch a full-scale attack on this decadent corporate conformism, just as their parents impose their vision on a defeated Japan.

It is this defeated Japan that is the film’s protagonist, and like Umi, whose father drowned at sea, the nation is fatherless and rudderless, reliant on its instincts and routines to survive. Umi raises her flags day in day out in stubborn determination. She knows this won’t bring her father back, but it preserves her memories. Shun, however, has been denied even basic memories of his childhood, which explains a little of his desperation to save a building from the past, his only link to his own. His attempt to discover the truth, essential if his relationship to Umi is to have a future, is also the cry of a nation, whose recent memories lie under a blanket of lies, half-truths, and aggressive silence. If Japan is to build its future, it must understand its past, rather than destroy what remains of it. This is ultimately the film’s message and is articulated by the head of the corporation that runs the school. He is persuaded that a nation cannot have any sort of future if it neglects its culture and leaves its history behind.

Umi’s dead father, a sailor, represents a vanishing way of life for the Japanese. It is her mother who represents the modern Japan of the economic miracle; hard-working, globetrotting and away from the family for extended periods of time. From Up on Poppy Hill is a paean to that lost way of life, which it undoubtedly sees through the rose-tinted lenses of nostalgia. Goro Miyazaki, who is a trained landscape architect, beautifully captures the human urbanism of old Japan. The exquisitely drawn architectural details add much depth to the film, from Kokuriko House, the sweeping views over the bay, the steeply sloping streets, to the bustling town centre down below, filled with fishermen and butchers, nostalgically bustling with urban exoticism.

For those of us susceptible to its bittersweet charms, few things are as powerful as nostalgia and this film dabbles unashamedly in the viscera of what the Greeks considered a physical ailment, a pain. Nostalgia has a large profile in Japan, where natsukashi, is invoked frequently, if perhaps unsurprisingly, in a country forged by such profound and violent change. Before you write of this nostalgia as pure sentimentality for a bygone age, think of where the film is coming from. Building on a native, somewhat Shintoist tradition of environmentalism, Studio Ghibli’s films always mourn the loss of simplicity and portray lives in harmony with nature that revel in simple joys and pleasures. The brash modernity criticised obliquely in the film, has fallen out of favour even in the West where it originated, as we lament the loss of our human cities and the communities that grew up in their living streets. Japan’s post-war modernity was born with the atomic age, and the destructive capacity of man’s new found technological progress will never forgotten by anyone who has visited the bomb sites at Nagasaki or Hiroshima. From Up on Poppy Hill presents an alternative reality, which should give us pause for thought. What if modernity creeped in with a broom, a brush and a bucket of paint, instead of flying in on the end of a wrecking-ball? What if dedicated individuals could always persuade powerful corporations of the merits of a little history and nostalgia?

Goro Miyazaki has learnt from his own experience at Studio Ghibli and finally emerged from his father’s shadow by allowing it to blend with his own. This film is a nuanced and emotionally powerful film that puts Ghibli’s charmingly naïve innocence to the service of social critique and philosophical reflection on the foundations of contemporary Japan. It may be nostalgic and sentimental, but it is absolutely self-aware. As Shun laconically adds, when he tells Umi they may be siblings, ‘yes it’s like a cheap melodrama’. A fairytale then about humanity and its possibilities.

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Posted in: Cinema