Thursday, June 13, 2013

Room with a View: FROM UP ON POPPY HILL


Studio Ghibli, the beloved Japanese animation studio best known for its fantasy masterpieces like Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, My Neighbor Totoro, and Castle in the Sky, has an impressive track record. So sharply observed and deeply felt, these films are special in the way they have an instinctual feel for characters’ internal lives and daily routines expressed through meticulously gorgeous animation that’s beautiful in both design and gesture. When making a film that’s considerably more realistic in approach, like the harrowing World War II drama Grave of the Fireflies or the tender young romance of Whisper of the Heart, this asset can been seen clearly. Take away the fantasy and their films are still full of magic. Ghibli’s latest film to hit American shores is From Up on Poppy Hill, a gentle, observant film with drama kept decidedly small, sweet, and casual. Much like the studio’s earlier human dramas, this is a film that takes plots that could seem stale and lets in fresh air by providing breathing room, space for stillness, pauses of atmosphere and tender emotion.

With a light dusting of nostalgia in the imagery, Poppy Hill takes place in the early 1960s in a small seaside Japanese town. The main character is Umi, a girl who lives with her grandmother and helps run the family’s boarding house. The building contains a number of characters briefly but evocatively glimpsed, a collection of women young and old who encourage one another and are as much friends as landlords and tenants. The film is mainly concerned with the girl’s routine, going to school and rushing home to work. Every morning she runs signal flags up the building’s flagpole, a habit that keeps alive the memory of her father, a sailor who died in the Korean War. She yearns to know more about him, but her mother is away studying in the United States. This develops into a softly, richly felt subplot.

Life moves forward. A tentative romance starts between the girl and a charismatic schoolmate. The boy and girl are feeling the first blushes of puppy love, strong enough to pull them towards each other, but unspoken, so that rather than being together for the sake of being together, they must find other, more practical reasons to meet. Other subplots include the boy’s interest in his family’s past and their schoolmates’ struggle to save their historic clubhouse from certain doom at the hands of the school board. Many of these plot threads center on the kids, the first post-WWII generation, looking to apply knowledge and lessons of the past in their present and future. The film, alive with period music and subtly rendered detail, works calmly around its theme of memory.

What makes all of this work is the patience with which it plays out. One character, dismayed over a new piece of information, bemoans that it’s like something out of a “cheap melodrama,” but the film never feels emotionally chintzy. It’s too willing to take the time to let characters feel a multiplicity of emotions, respond to more than one motivation, feel inner conflict that leaks out into their behaviors. An early moment, so fast you might miss it, is indicative of the film’s typical Ghibli touch for allowing close observation in its animation. Two girls approach the boy-dominated clubhouse and ask a simple question of two boys hard at work. When the boys respond, their cheeks gain subtle bright smudges of red. They’re both excited and embarrassed by the prospect of talking to girls. It’s a nice throwaway detail that’s hardly necessary but makes all the difference.

The film, co-written by Hayao Miyazaki and directed by his son Goro, feels consistent with the studio’s house style of emotionally engaged visual detail. There’s something refreshing about a film that’s so confidently small, so willing to simply sit with its characters in their world and see what happens. Though the narrative gently pulls them along, there’s a sense that it’d be just as well if it didn’t. Per usual, Ghibli delivers an animated film with a sense of place and purpose that unfolds at a welcome unhurried pace. It’s practically a guarantee that even a minor Ghibli effort, as this is, will be better than most animated features you’ll see in a given year.


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