Film #68: From Up on Poppy Hill (2011)

aka: コクリコ坂から (Kokuriko-zaka kara)
directed by: Goro Miyazaki
language: Japanese
length: 91 minutes
watched on: 13 October 2012

This is the latest offering from Studio Ghibli. It was released well over a year ago in Japan, but hasn’t yet been released in English speaking areas outside of the film festival circuit, as far as I can tell (although apparently it’s on release in French speaking areas). This is fairly reflective of what’s happened with other recent Ghibli releases: they tend to come out a couple of years later in Europe and America than they do in Japan, in an interesting reversal of the normal situation. So I felt I had to watch it while I’m here. It’s a Miyazaki film – but not Hayao, his son Goro. I wasn’t too enamoured by Goro’s last film, Tales from Earthsea, so I was a little bit hesitant about watching this one at first. I wasn’t disappointed, certainly; it seems like Goro is managing to find his feet in the filmmaking business.

The first word in the title (kokuriko) is a katakana transcription of the word ‘coquelicot’, the French word for poppy. The whole title has been translated fairly literally into English. Poppy Hill is in Yokohama somewhere – although I didn’t realise this directly – and is essentially a nostalgia piece, since it’s also set in the 60s around the time that Tokyo hosted the Olympic Games (this influences the plot a bit). When I reviewed “Whispers of the Heart”, and more recently “Ocean Waves”, I said exactly the same thing: it’s rather unlike Ghibli to set things in the real world with no fantastical elements, focusing on high schoolers, although they do manage to pull it off fairly well this time.

A lot of the nostalgia comes from looking at social roles in Japan, as the film focuses on a family composed mostly of girls living on a hill overlooking the sea (which is drawn very beautifully). The main character is a teenager who’s in charge of her family. Evidently this is because her mother is away in America, and she’s the eldest daughter – but like many of the social tidbits, this one managed to escape from me entirely, as I’m not familiar with it, and it may not be even practised anymore. The opening scene’s dialogue is almost all composed of the set phrases that Japanese people say when they greet each other in the morning or sit down for dinner. Some of these were familiar to me, but it still depicts a world I didn’t grow up in and haven’t really, despite being here, experienced directly.

The plot is a bit strange, I thought. The overarching story involves a clubhouse at the local high school which the authorities are threatening to knock down; the main characters engage in a clean-up operation and head over to Tokyo to convince the man in charge to come down and take a look so that they don’t have to tear the clubhouse down. The main girl gets sort-of involved with a boy, although this gets major complications later on in the story. Family is a big theme. And the girl is communicating with a mysterious someone via shipping flags, which she puts up every morning to see the response (spoiler, if you can’t work it out: it’s the boy).

The clubhouse is probably the part that is depicted most lovingly, although it turns into a kind of information blast, with too much stuff going on on the screen to take it all in. It’s a hectic place, and the closest that the film gets to ‘traditional’ Ghibli magic.

As for the nostalgia, I obviously wasn’t there, but I can’t help but feel that it was probably viewed through rose-tinted spectacles, since in many ways it seemed too perfect. I also had a bit of a negative reaction when a rather parochial type from Yokohama kept insisting that it’s the perfect film to show how perfect Yokohama is. But I’ll try not to pass judgement on the things I don’t know enough about it.

Overall, the film was nice – as well as the visuals, the music was also really beautiful – but by the end of it I couldn’t really work out exactly what I was supposed to take from it. The plot was fairly inconsequential, and had a few loose ends that were left dangling. Summarising it fully proves to be difficult. So as I said before, Goro is definitely finding his feet, but he still has a bit of a way to go until they’re firmly on the ground. We will probably need to wait until the next one to find out exactly how far he can go.

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Film #67: Iron Sky (2012)

directed by: Timo Vuorensola
language: English and German
length: 93 minutes
watched on: 3 October 2012

This was a birthday treat from a friend and it was quite a fun one, too. What’s the plot? Moon Nazis. Yeah, it’s that film. In the near future, America goes to the moon and there they discover a Nazi base, established after the war. The Moon Nazis decide it’s time to reinvade, for reasons that don’t really matter. It’s all MacGuffins.

The film is B-Movie trash through and through, and it revels in that fact quite knowingly, and is therefore quite funny, even though hardly anything about it makes much sense. For instance, there’s a scene near the beginning where the female Nazi protagonist’s clothes all come off because the airlock is accidentally opened, and she ends up in the arms of the big black guy.

Later in the film, the director seems to try and clumsily make a political point, perhaps about American imperialism, but it sometimes just comes across as strongly anti-American. The American President is a Sarah Palin lookalike, complete with taxidermied polar bears adorning her White House, and her main advisor is set up near the beginning with a scene copied from the German film “Downfall” which specifically compares her to Hitler. It’s not easy to support characters such as these, and I had to wonder whether the director was trying to get us to be more sympathetic to the Nazis, or trying to say that everyone’s as bad as each other. There’s also later a Dr Strangelove-esque War Room scene, and quite a few more knowing references dotted around.

It’s not a great film, yes, but to be honest, my biggest problem with it was not being able to understand a large portion of the dialogue. It turns out that “English and German” means almost properly bilingual (with a preference for English), unlike many films where the second language would be more of a token. No, here the German characters tend to speak German to each other and to themselves, with a few exceptions. And of course, since I’m in Japan, well you guessed it, it’s subtitled in Japanese, not English. I can understand some German (and I did anticipate this – there was simply nothing else good on at the cinemas!), but I’m sorely out of practice at it, and this German wasn’t easy to understand, since a lot of it was barked, or simply too fast for me to hear. Of course, this being the film it is, I didn’t miss out on much, but in some individual scenes I was left feeling a bit confused, and sometimes the motivations were more of a mystery to me than they perhaps should have been.

All in all, definitely good to see. The ending was a bit of a downer, and as I say, played into the anti-American theme quite heavily, and there was a sweet little sequel hook if you’re willing to stay to the end of the credits. Anyway, none of this matters because MOON NAZIS!

Film #66: Ocean Waves (1993)

aka: 海がきこえる (Umi ga kikoeru), I Can Hear the Sea
directed by: Tomomi Mochizuki
length: 72 minutes
language: Japanese
watched on: 18 September 2012

When I reviewed “Whispers of the Heart”, another Studio Ghibli title, back in January 2011, I remarked at the time that the film, however wonderful it was and however beautifully it portrayed its setting, lost a lot of magic simply by being set in the real world rather than in a fantasy world. The same is very much true of this film, although to be honest, it wasn’t that inspiring a story at all. It was in fact a TV movie, never released in cinemas, and completed on a smaller budget (that overran) compared to other Ghibli titles. In English, confusingly, it has two titles, although I will be using “Ocean Waves” here just because I think that’s the one they use in the UK.

The film does happen to have the rare distinction among Ghibli films of having a male protagonist, which doesn’t happen very often. It’s set somewhere rural, perhaps Shikoku island, and it follows the story of a boy who falls in love with a girl while they’re on holiday in Hawaii; later they travel to Tokyo together because she wants to go back and see her father, but it doesn’t work out for some reason. To be honest, I’ve forgotten, since the film and plot really weren’t that interesting.

I guess the main thing that interested me about this film was the opening shot. It’s in a train station, and it took me only a few seconds to realise that it was a realistic and eerily familiar depiction of the JR Kichijoji station, which is very near my apartment, and which I’ve used quite a lot. My apartment’s actually closer to the next line to the north, but I can cycle a lot. I was even in Kichijoji today, and yesterday, and tomorrow I’ll be cycling past it to get to work in Mitaka (a city which hosts the Ghibli museum, right enough). So it’s very strange for me to notice things like that, which are now very recognisable for me. Similarly, there were a few depictions of the rest of Tokyo later on which looked reminiscent, although generally it’s more of a look into a past version of Tokyo, because almost 20 years have passed since the film was made.

So anyway, the film wasn’t that great. It’s not without merit (as with all Ghibli films, it has beautiful set pieces and nice music), but it’s not typical Ghibli output, perhaps because it wasn’t by Miyazaki.

TV: Breaking Bad Season 5 (2012)

Created by: Vince Gilligan
Language: English, Spanish
Length: 8 episodes, 45 minutes
Finished watching on: 16 September 2012

This is Breaking Bad’s latest season, which I watched in August and September, this time only very shortly after it was officially shown in America. Except that for some unfathomable reason, they’ve split what they call season 5 into two half-seasons, the second of which will be released next year. I personally can’t see what here is the difference between calling them season 5A and 5B, and calling them season 5 and 6. Perhaps they were produced at the same time? Or perhaps it’s because this season was only, unfortunately, half the length of an ordinary season. (Yet season 1 is the same!)

Anyway, we get a few major plot developments in this series and we let the characters develop. The creators leave the show hanging precariously off a cliff in the final scene, in a frustrating yet somehow satisfying way, and observant viewers will notice a flashforward in the first episode of the series. Still good, anyway, and there’s not really much else I can add to my previous review.