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From Up On Poppy Hill

My second visit to the cinema in France. This was to watch the Studio Ghibli film "From Up On Poppy Hill" (La Colline aux Coquelicots in French).

We turned up nice and early, the curator was just opening the door. Inside, almost hidden from view, was this awesome ancient projector.

Traditional projector
I found it interesting that it contained three different correction lenses, for while the physical film is the same size, the images may be squished and require a lens to pull the image out to the correct size.
Cine film
Having some time in hand, the curator explained that he remembers the old ways but it is all digital now. In a way it makes things a lot simpler, good image quality (you can't see pixels on the screen and there's none of the graininess of film, nor the risk of scratching) and better sound; but in a way these improvements are damaging the spirit of filmmaking. Perhaps, he considered, in the near future people might be able to create entire movies on home computers. I though I had better not tell him about Blender or the Sintel open movie project...
It is a paradox - for the ability to try your hand at making a film is something that has been available to all for many many years - my first motion camera took Super8 cartridges. And this is something that should be available to everybody. On the other hand, that it is now so easy to make movies (basically you need a camera, an idea, and a load of cash) there is an awful lot of rubbish. I'm not being elitist here - put your hand up if you actually liked "Epic Movie"... exactly.

I see, sort of, what the gist here is. I have an idea I'm kicking around in my head and whether or not it sees the light of day depends upon how I get on with Blender. Some of the visuals in my mind would be breathtaking to see, but if every surface has to be described and defined, you don't wanna know how complicated it would be! Anyway, I'm not claiming my idea is going to be a masterpiece, but you see the simpler it is for people like me to create something, the cheaper it will be for a major studio to make a string of pointless rehashes of something that did well - the aforementioned Epic FailMovie being an example, or that studio that answered Snakes On A Plane with... Snakes On A Train. Or the dozens of clones loosely based upon Blair Witch.

The cinema was larger than I expected, capable of seating around 180 people. For ten minutes I was worried we were the only people watching the film.

The silver screen
Amusingly, the introduction audio was a recording of famous movie themes - Star Wars, ET, Indiana Jones...

In the final minutes, people turned up. Two tweenies sat almost in front of us, with their hair or something smelling of bubble gum (maybe strawberry) shampoo. A mid-30s woman and her older friend behind. A granny or two (!), and a couple of mothers with assorted children. I'd guess maybe 15 people in total.

Some adverts for the local supermarket (yeah, like the locals haven't noticed it yet, there's a choice of two!) and a promo for what looked like Sherlock Holmes played by that traditional English actor...Robert Downey Jr. Um. Given this was a Ghibli film and there were young children here, I think that promo was a little overly violent. Mom's take was "who in their right mind wants to go to a cinema to watch Robert Downey Jr almost get killed a dozen times?". You can tell she doesn't entirely 'get' fiction movies. And I'd better not show her that so-OTT-it-is-bloody-hillarious movie "Vampire Girl vs Frankenstein Girl". :-)

The movie itself then began with the lights dimmed properly. As I didn't fancy the amount of fiddling it would take to capture a picture of the film as it is playing, here's a mock-up I made earlier...

Up On Poppy Hill at my local cinema

The girl... well, there's no mistaking she's a Ghibli girl. Even being directed by Goro Miyazaki (son of Hayao), there's just something about the design that screams Ghibli. I'm actually surprised that there wasn't a scene with her wearing a pinafore dress and singing as the wind blows through her hair...

It is actually a fairly heavy story with two intertwined plots. Before I talk about that, my overall impression is that while there were some parts that were really nice to look at (mostly backdrops), the animated parts were a little lacklustre. The plot was rather sedate, I would consider it to be along the same sort of lines as Only Yesterday rather than something like Nausicaa Of The Valley Of The Wind (which, while showing its age, is such an awesome ride that you just don't care). The quirky thing with Ghibli is that you never know quite what to expect. From tales of dragons (Tales From Earthsea) to the lovely Whisper Of The Heart and the outstanding Spirited Away - they all feature the Ghibli Girl, but they're all quite different.

I think the thing is, I was expecting something truly magical from this film and it didn't quite deliver. It was as if it wasn't entirely certain what genre it was supposed to be in, with some parts being comedy (and not always seeming to be appropriate), I guess the profound ending just... wasn't there. So many of Ghibli films carry a message; whether it is environmental (too many to list!), or against wanton greed and the power of love (Spirited Away, such an awesome ending!). Maybe this is what is lacking in the recent Ghibli films, being adaptions of existing stories (Earthsea, The Borrowers, and Poppy Hill) it doesn't have the traditional Ghibli ethic.

Don't get me wrong, if this was made by Studio I.G. or Kyoto Animation, we'd probably be raving about it, but being made by Ghibli, their past catalogue is such an astonishing collection that it would have a struggle to keep its place in Ghibli history.

Set in Yokohama just before the Tokyo Olympics (1964), the story is of Umi, a high schooler who lives (and works!) in a house full of tenants run by the girl's grandmother. Her mother was off studying in America, and her father was a sailor (captain?) who was lost at sea during the Korean War. In other words, both of Umi's parents are absentees. Every morning, Umi raises naval signal flags on a massive flagpole in front of the house, where they can be seen from far out at sea. It's her way of remembering her father, and her hope that he may return. Umi's life is meticulously organised around her duties, both at school and at home. That is, of course, until she happens upon the somewhat reckless jerk-with-a-heart-of-gold called "Shun" who introduces her to the assorted teenagers (all boys) who hang out at a falling apart old school clubhouse called "Quartier Latin" (and amusingly its theme tune sounds like something from Amélie!). The various groups (chemistry, philosophy, astronomy, newspaper, literature, etc) have claimed parts of the building for their extracurricular activities.
The problem is the with the Olympics on the horizon, Japan was suffering a wind of change of getting rid of old stuff to replace it with trendy new things - some of the city scenery porn was of big concrete buildings and neon lights side by side with wooden structures that look to have been there for a hundred years, if not longer. Something that has always fascinated me about Japan is the mixture of ultra-modern and ultra-ancient, including such cases as a shrine that is destroyed and rebuilt on a twenty year cycle, but it is thought of as a shrine dating back to whenever even if what you see in front of you was built only a month before.
You have probably guessed, this messy crappy old building was due to meet the wrecking ball. The students, they're not happy with this and they plan to fight it in every way possible.
Meanwhile, Umi and Shun get a little closer (again, this is no big surprise), but one hell of a complication is thrown into their lives. To say more would be a massive spoiler, so I won't.

As you can see, it is set firmly in reality (no cute witches or talking cats) and it is essentially a drama. However it doesn't really stand alongside a film like Whisper Of The Heart as there is nothing... nothing... how do I say it? This film is just so by the numbers straight. There's none of the wonder, none of the marvels, of the earlier films already mentioned. I think it tried to play it safe and ended up suffering for that. I'm thinking now of the bit about the life-complication and I'm wondering if that was even necessary to the plot. Sure, it's a challenge for the two main characters to face up to, but - damn it - this is a film set in the mid sixties. Japan was recovering from its wartime defeat and on the way to taking on the world in its unique (and widely copied, never successfully...) style. There's so much Goro could have worked with on that alone. Japan's rise into the industrial power that it became in the '80s could have been an outstanding backdrop - charting the shift from long-known traditions and methods to the new. Where does this leave the Japanese? The film depicts well (and enjoyably) the students in their struggle to save their wreck, and the army of schoolgirls that turn up to sort out the mess, but the film doesn't dare to delve into the real struggles going on in the country and the lost generation who grew up post-war and saw things changing around them at a frightening rate.

There are some beautiful pieces in the film, and some lovely scenarios from the quirky to the kawaii to the laugh-out-loud funny (the student riot and the big clean) along with plenty of period detail (cooking rice the traditional way!), but when you think about it, we never linger nor question, it's just following Umi from one situation to another. This isn't a bad thing, it's quite a likable film with nothing to offend or upset, but in a way this is the thing - Goro wasn't brave enough to spend more time, to delve into the character's interactions and what it all means. Perhaps that would upset the powers that be, but for a country that has got itself stuck in a pattern of picking a new PM on a yearly basis, maybe a heavy dose of nostalgia with a political statement is what this should have been? It's not a bad second film from Goro, but from a studio that offered deadly forest-dwelling bugs, man's pollution killing the forest spirits (perhaps one of the most haunting things I've seen in a long time), flying shape-shifting Tanuki with giant testicles, talking cats and slimy ghosts... Goro needs to grow a pair and not be afraid to make a statement. Come up with a unique story instead of adapting other people's...


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