Monday, August 29, 2011

Ghibli: Kokurikozaka kara (From Up On Poppy Hill) (2011)

I can imagine Arrietty finding an audience overseas, but I wonder about this one:  Kokurikozaka kara コクリコ坂から (which seems like it's going to be released as From Up On Poppy Hill).  It's about kids - well, high school kids - and no doubt young anime fans will find a lot to enjoy in it.  But the tone is pretty grown-up.  It's very much an adult's nostalgic view of adolescence - and really an older adult's, with the longing for the Showa 30s that has gripped Japanese boomers for years now.  Maybe younger viewers in Japan can sort of approximate that point of view - but will it register with overseas audiences?

Maybe not;  maybe it doesn't matter.  The story is moving, and the animation is some of the most beautiful Ghibli has ever produced.  What's not to love?

It's about a girl named Umi, nicknamed Mer (a bilingual pun) who lives in a big house on a hill overlooking Yokohama Harbor in 1963.  Her father died at sea during the Korean War, and her mother is in America studying medicine;  Mer lives with her grandmother, her younger sister, and three single women boarders.  Every morning Mer runs a nautical signal flag up the flagpole in front of the boarding house, hoping in vain that her father will see it and return.

So, with the longing for the dead father and the absent mother, the story is awash in sentimentality, right?  Yes, it is.  If that's not your cup of tea, then this isn't your movie.  But if you appreciate a good flushing of the tear ducts occasionally, a deft pull on the heartstrings once in a while, this anime delivers.

At school she develops a crush on a guy named Kazama who lives in an old Meiji-era foreign-style mansion that's been turned into a high-school dorm.  It's called the Quartier Latin, and it's a fabulous creation, combining the kind of colonial-style Western-yearning grand architecture that can still be seen today on the Bluff in Yokohama with decades of accreted boy student embellishments, everything from theatricals posters to dismembered bicycles to ledgers that probably contain missing parts of the Dead Sea Scrolls.  This dorm provides one of the major subplots, as the owner, an absentee landlord living in Tokyo, has decided to sell it, and the kids decide to band together to save it.

The lightness of the Quartier Latin parts of the film nicely balances the sadness of Mer's story, and of course the two threads intertwine in effective, affecting ways.  You'll laugh, you'll cry.

And if you're like me (and just pray you're not) you'll be enthralled at how carefully the filmmakers work in period details.  The story starts out in what feels like fairy-tale territory, the kind of fantasized-Europe-in-Japan that the Borrower house in Arrietty embodies.  But gradually the story eases us into the realization that this is a very particular time and place being depicted - Yokohama on the eve of the Tokyo Olympics - and that the West-East fusions, the nostalgia-vs.-renovation themes, are all carefully accounted for by the specificity of the setting.  Right about the time you realize exactly where and when this has to be taking place, the story brings you to Sakuragi-chō Station, sits you down in a Tokyo publisher's office surrounded by Olympics posters and magazine covers (all quite recognizable), lets you walk by the Hikawa-maru at night.  An idealized glow permeates everything, but it only enhances the sense of locatedness that this movie provides.

I like Ghibli's kid movies.  I really do.  But I get most excited when I see the company pushing the limits of what animation has traditionally been considered capable of doing.  Omoide poroporo おもひでぽろぽろ (Only Yesterday) might be their greatest achievement in this regard:  while kids appear in the story, it's all about an adult woman thinking through events in her childhood in order to make sense of her present-day situation.  That all this is accomplished, with perfect subtlety, through animation is a remarkable achievement, and what's more remarkable is that some parts of the story are told much more naturally than they could have been with live action.  It's an argument in favor of animation as an art form unlimited by age, subject, or theme.

Kokurikozaka kara is almost like that.  The story is all about adolescents, and nostalgic perspective aside there's no adult consciousness in the story reminiscing.  But still, thematically it's working on a more mature level than anything Ghibli's done in years and years.  It's a major work.

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