Teenage love in the suburbs of postwar is the latest treat from Japan's ever-formidable Studio Ghibli.
Impressionist painters deal in hyper reality. They depict tangible landscapes in tangible worlds that are heightened by a playful subjectivity and an acknowledgment of the confines of the medium they are working in. It’s a personalised vision of reality. Goro Miyazaki’s charming From Up On Poppy Hill runs with this aesthetic concept, as it’s a film whose story, characters and actions don’t necessarily meet the fantastical standards of the animated form, but are made to feel otherworldly via the careful manner in which they have been rendered.
It’s a trick that Japan’s Studio Ghibli pulled off before with Yoshifumi Kondō’s masterful Whisper Of The Heart, a lilting love story involving a young writer of showtunes; an animated film which could have been made as live action. From Up On Poppy Hill works in perfect tandem with Kondō’s 1995 film, telling of harried high-schooler Umi as she experiences the initial pangs of first love. And like Miyazaki Snr’s previous, Ponyo, the drama takes place in a rinky-dink port town within an old house planted on top of a hill.
Ghibli are preservers of an antiquated form of filmmaking (hand-drawn animation) and as such, this film examines the importance of preservation while merrily refuting the dictum that old is bad. Sidelining her duties as a cook and cleaner while her mother receives business tuition in the States, Umi falls in with a crowd of preppy teen boys who are in the process of refurbishing their ramshackle clubhouse lest the school board decide to tear it down. Though entirely earnest in its celebration of The Old Ways, there is the occasional witty barb (the school newspaper is located in the same room as the archeology society), while the whole story takes place during the modernising sprint-start that occurred in Tokyo in the years leading up to the 1968 Olympics.
Some may baulk at the film’s second half when it knowingly descends into convoluted melodrama. There’s even the suggestion that lurking beneath the wholesome façade is an extremely provocative investigation into the tragic romanticism of incestuous love. But it’s a suggestion swiftly quashed by some last-minute, not-so-nifty backstory rearranging. By contrast, the triumphal saving of the clubhouse subplot offers a prim and wholesome counterbalance to the potentially seedy subtext which culminates in these young bumpkins venturing into the big city and sticking it to The Man.
Yet the film’s primary delights derive from its immaculate visual craftsmanship and the sensual fluidity of its animation. Look out for Umi’s chopping board when she’s preparing cabbage to eat with tempura: it’s dinted and scuffed with knife scores. It’s a microscopic piece of detailing which isn’t in any way pushed to the fore, yet it satisfyingly encapsulates the film’s underlying (and entirely laudable) ideology of cherishing products, places and people to the end of their natural lives and beyond.
Studio Ghibli is an instant seal of approval.
A delight. Stately, intimate and beautifully rendered.
Not up there with the Ghibli masterworks of yore, but still a bounty of ideas and emotions.