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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