From Up on Poppy Hill (2011)

Kokurikozaka_kara_film_poster.jpgThe song “Sukiyaki” sung by Kyu Sakamoto proved such a charming enigma for me. Here was a record that was so quintessentially Japanese, a melodious ballad, that was nevertheless branded in the West with a more novel title and became a smash hit. However, here within the framework of this anime, the song feels perfectly at home once more as “Ue o Muite Arukō” an impeccable benchmark of an era in Japan’s history. It’s true that the full extent of the musical score is noticeably more western than we might be used to with anime yet the cornerstone of the soundtrack is Sakamoto’s iconic tune.

What we are given by director Goro Miyazaki and a script by his father Hayao Miyazaki is a small-scale nostalgia piece that still manages to have broader implications for all of Japan. More crucial yet is how it aims to hone in on a story that is part family melodrama, part love story, and even a high school feel-good tale.

We are planted in Yokohama (south of Tokyo), circa 1963, with the nation setting its sights on the 1964 Olympics famously documented in films such as Kon Ichikawa’s official documentary and Walk Don’t Run (1966). Here Up From Poppy Hill gives a more up close and personal approach that allows us to empathize with a very different type of narrative.

Because even with the pull for modernity feeling so prevalent, there is this sense that Japan, as not only a nation but a culture, must not forget the past. Yes, the war years were rife with so many tragedies but therein still lie traditions and the ways of old that must not be forgotten.

The greatest emblem within the confines of the film is the so-called “Latin Quarter” on the high school campus — a dingy rickety old building that serves as headquarters for many of the school’s circles including philosophy, chemistry, archaeology, and of course, the school newspaper.

Umi is a young student who must help run her family’s boarding house by preparing meals daily after school and the like. But after a fateful encounter, she is drawn to become a member of the academy’s journalism circle transcribing news.

One of the figures who leaves an impression on her is Shun, a stalwart member of the journalism circle, who is part of a band of students intent on fixing up their headquarters. But more so than that these audacious students must plead with the local chairman to reverse his plans to demolish the old relic. For them the reasons are twofold. First off, it’s their home and secondly, it’s part of their history.

Poppy Hill also takes great care to consider Umi and Shun’s parents. Her mother is a professor and her father was a sailor who died during the Korean War. Shun’s past is something that’s even more murky, clouded by facts that he’s never quite been able to reconcile. Their coming together at school proves a near act of fate since their personal histories are tied closer than they could have ever known. Again, the past and the present prove equally important to their identity.

The main draw for me is the throes of nostalgia that wrap up the picture. Pictorials that capture the innate beauty of living in Japan generations before with the harbor and the fresh sea air off in the distance. While simultaneously you have the degradation left over from the war and the increasing pollutants which come with what is termed “progress.” It’s true that in all things there can be derived both a positive and a negative. The same could be said of the love/hate relationship with the U.S. and the constant give and take between progress and remembering the past. These issues prove universally applicable.

But this is never a story to dwell on the bad, far more content with forging an innocent and genial path. That’s one of its finest attributes and you can see Hayao Miyazaki’s own warmth coming up through the seams. There is little animosity here as it’s replaced by laughter and more pleasant aspirations. While son might never reach the heights of his father as a storyteller, Up From Poppy Hill is nevertheless a quaint tale that brims with benevolence.

3.5/5 Stars

Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)

Howls-moving-castleposterCertainly this newer addition to the work of Ghibli Studios and Miyazaki is not his best due to a lack of cohesion within the story-line and the rapid coming and going of characters.

However, with that aside, as always the animated landscapes and backdrops are as beautifully breathtaking as ever. It is yet another whimsical world that came partially from Miyazaki and also from its British source novel.

It is occupied by some wonderfully fascinating characters including the eponymous Howl, Calcifier, Sophie, and cute little Markl. I ended up watching the dubbed version with the voices of Christian Bale, Josh Hutcherson, and the always comical Billy Crystal. I think I was perhaps most appreciative to hear the voice work of Lauren Bacall and Jean Simmons. Their work in this film exemplified that their illustrious careers spanned well into their 80s. That is quite the feat.

I have to say that the dog and Turnip Head had to be two of my favorite characters. I’m not quite sure why… Still I would recommend this film and it is certainly a must for Anime or Miyazaki fanatics.

4/5 Stars

My Neighbor Totoro (1988)

7eaa5-my_neighbor_totoro_-_tonari_no_totoro_movie_posterFrom the famed Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki, this enchanting film is about two little girls and their very unusual neighbor Totoro.

The film opens with Satsuki and her little sister Mei arriving at a new home out in the country with their father. They are two energetic and rambunctious girls, who are excited by this new adventure. Their father is a kindly man, who spends a great deal of time with them when he is not working. Several other characters play a part including the elderly lady Nanny, the young boy Kanta, and of course the girls’ mother who is in the hospital. First, the girls chase dust creatures through their supposedly “haunted house.” Then, one day Mei follows a strange furry little creature under their house and then into the depths of the woods nearby.  She takes a tumble and all of a sudden she finds herself in the dwelling of a big fluffy Totoro spirit and falls asleep on its belly. When she tries to show Totoro to Satsuki and her father she cannot find him.

However, one evening as they wait for their father’s bus, Totoro comes to the stop, and this time Satsuki is introduced to the spirit who leaves them with a gift. After they spend another magical night with Totoro a few days later, the girls learn to their dismay that their mother is not coming home as planned. An annoyed Mei decides to take some corn to the hospital many miles away. Her disappearance causes a panic in the town, especially with Satsuki. She searches tirelessly for her little sister until her feet are sore. Her only other option is to plead with her neighbor Totoro to help her. Thanks to Totoro Mei and Satsuki are reunited and they see to their delight that their mother is in high spirits at the hospital.

This is certainly a film for children, but it would be unfortunate to call this a childish film. I must take a brief moment to praise the animation led by Miyazaki too. Every single image could almost be a painting they are so beautiful.  In my limited knowledge of anime, it is far above anything I have seen before. It was great to see this film in the original Japanese because it seemed more authentic, but what really struck me was the realistic nature of these young girls. Perhaps they speak a foreign language (to me) but their moods are universal. They can be extremely loud, they pout, share moments of laughter, and they love their parents.

Furthermore, this story does not need some major conflict to drive the plot. Their father is a loving open-minded man who does not even briefly doubt their adventures. I was even thinking that the obvious turn of events was that their mother would die and yet that is not the case. What this film really has is a wonderful innocence which can be appreciated by all ages. Instead of creating some major pathos we are simply able to enjoy this magical friendship between this remarkably cute fluffy spirit Totoro and these two girls. I certainly cannot wait for more from Studio Ghibli and I’m sorry that such an artist is retiring soon.

4.5/5 Stars