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…down from Poppy Hill.

Year: 2011
Language: Japanese
Director: Miyazaki Gorō
Production Studio:
Studio Ghibli
Screenplay: Miyazaki Hayao (宮崎 駿), Niwa Keiko (丹羽 圭子)
Adaptation from: the 1980 manga 「コクリコ坂から」 (Kokuriko-zaka Kara/From up on Poppy Hill) by Sayama Tetsurō and Takahashi Chizuru
Animation: Yamashita Akihiko, Yamagata Atsushi, Kousaka Kitaro
Character Design: Kondo Katsuya
Soundscore: Takebe Satoshi
Theme Song: Japanese versionKorean version
Voice Actors: Nagasawa Masami, Okada Junichi, Kanzama Sunshuke, Fubuki Jun, Takeshita Keiko, among others.
Runtime: 91 min
Trailer: on YouTube (not subtitled)
Film’s official website: kokurikzaka.jp (in Japanese/日本語)

Seen at the film’s UK premiere at the Terracotta Far East Film Festival in London. UPDATE: The film is being released in UK cinemas on August 2, 2013

In the US Studio Ghibli’s 2010 「借りぐらしのアリエッティ」 (Karigurashi no Arrietty/Arrietty) is two months into its cinematic release – more than half a year after it screened in the UK and a good 19 months after it originally opened in Japan. The situation is no different with the animation studio’s most recent production, 「コクリコ坂から」 (Kokuriko-zaka Kara/From up on Poppy Hill), which premiered in its country of origin in July 2011, but, except for three showings during the Toronto International Film Festival and cinema runs in Taiwan (November 2012, as 來自紅花坂) and France (January 2012, as La Colline aux coquelicots) has not been seen internationally. How the Terracotta Film Festival managed to bring the film to the UK, I do not know, but it was no surprise that the screening was sold out (something I fortunately foresaw, buying a ticket the day they became available :-D) and that viewers were cheering before the reel started rolling.

Miyazaki Gorō’s debut: Gedo senki (2006)

With the debut feature 「ゲド戦記」 (Gedo senki/Tales of Earthsea, 2006) of Miyazaki Gorō, son of the legendary Miyazaki Hayao, not quite delivering in the eyes of critics and also receiving mixed reactions from viewers, the anticipation for Kokuriko-zaka Kara, his second feature-length attempt, was particularly high. It was, in a sense, a sort of make or break moment for the younger Miyazaki, with grand questions preceding the release: Is he really suited to take over from Miyazaki (father) and Takahata Isao, the original founders of Studio Ghibli, who have long since reached retirement age? Can he finally prove his worth to take Studio Ghibli to a favourable future?

Although I never thought that Gedo senki was quite the failure that some people made it out to be, it did have some significant flaws, particularly in its ability to create a compelling – tightly edited as well as motivating – narrative. I was therefore particularly looking for improvement in this aspect, but my expectations weren’t too high: the art of telling a story is difficult and, for those without a natural talent for it, probably takes much experience (read: years) to master. The good news, however, is that Kokuriko-zaka Kara is narratively speaking much more solid – not yet perfect, but there is a story, and thus a film, that holds together. Granted, with Miyazaki senior and Niwa Keiko having written the script, it wasn’t purely the director’s own doing, but Kokuriko-zaka Kara is a better work than Gedo Senki for more reasons than that.  Although it doesn’t make it onto my Studio Ghibli personal favourites list (not all that surprising, as the bar for that is high), it does manage to charm in a way that offers promise for Miyazaki-son’s – and Studio Ghibli’s – filmmaking future.

Manga source: The 1980 Kokuriko-zaka Kara. Weird hair colours…

Like Gedo senkiKokuriko-zaka Kara is an adaptation. Based on a manga of the same title (story by Sayama Tetsurō, art by Takahashi Chizuru), it is set in the harbour town Yokohama (横浜) of the Japan of 1963 – a year before the Tokyo Olympics -, in a place and time in which the country is only looking forward. Modernity is beckoning, with the hope to showcase a Japan of things new and stylish to the world. But there are people who want to hold on to things old – to past culture, traditions and memories – and, surprisingly, it’s people who would seem to have the least investment in them: the children.

One of them is 16-year old Umi (voiced by Nagasawa Masami), who raises a signal flag to the sea every morning. The practice, which carries the meaning of praying for the safety of voyages, was shown to the younger Umi by her father, who is now long dead, the flag-raising thus continuing old customs as well as invoking remembrance of the person who taught her. Unknown to the girl the flag is seen by Shun (Okada Junichi), her senpai at school, who often passes by in a tugboat in the sea below at that hour. Shun is part of a group of students opposing the demolition of the Latin Quarter, a ramshackle building that the boys have been using for their various school club activities (why it is only the boys that use it, is never explained). When the males stage a smart mob protest to draw attention to their cause, Umi’s and Shun’s paths cross and, as Umi joins the fight for the Latin Quarter, they soon develop more-than-friendly feelings for one another. The students’ battle for the building and Umi and Shun’s budding relationship create the film’s main narrative axes, with greater emphasis on the latter as an unexpected obstacle is encountered: the two of them might be siblings.

Over-the-top love confession? Dare-devil student protest? Or, thanks to youthful enthusiasm, perhaps everything at once? (Image from the art book, see Bonus Bits below.)

Dramatic focus it may be, but where the film in fact shines is in the students’ efforts to save the dilapidated building. “Everyone is so passionate,” Umi observes when she first watches a debate between the opposing factions of the student body, and this is true: Kokuriko-zaka Kara bursts with the passion that youth possesses but that adults can only recall in fond reminiscence. The smart mob causes quite a scene, Shun showing that he’s happy to do neck-breaking stunts for the sake of preserving the building, later followed by some lamp-swinging cleaning. There is also no inhibition at the school debate, students going from fierce sparring to a delightful display of complete pretend-unity within seconds when the adults walks in. Although most characters are sketched only briefly, their antics add plenty moments of comedy to the film, from the rambling one-member-only philosophy club president to the astronomers that have discovered the profound truth of the universe: that they really know zilch. With all this energy radiated, the ‘potential siblings’ story feels unneeded and even slightly unrealistic,1 or, as Shun himself says, in a moment of self-deprecating humour, it’s “like in a cheap melodrama”. Of course, simply removing the twist (which might feature in the original manga or not, I do not know) could be problematic and deflate the story too much. However, there are other sources of conflict – e.g. other obstacles to teen love – that might have been successfully used in its stead, particularly if they had been employed to give us inspiring characters that last beyond the tale, which neither Umi or Shun do.

Kokuriko-zaka Kara is narrated from Umi’s perspective, her character being more fully formed than Shun’s. Shun is a fairly typical shōjo-style hero, decent, handsome and popular (among boys and girls), but also rather gutsy, with a more interesting family past than initially apparent. As for Umi, she is not quite as feminist as some of Studio Ghibli’s grandest female heroines (San “Mononoke Hime”, Nausicäa, or even Sophie or Kiki), but is very much a girl defined by the time she lives in. She dutifully does all the housework and caters for her family (grandmother Hana, younger sister Sora, younger brother Riku) and some lodgers in the home on top of Poppy Hill. It’s Umi that comes up with the idea to scrub down the Latin Quarter, a task she tackles with a brigade of other girls (although the boys do soon join in to help), and it’s also her that helps out the student newspaper by transcribing texts with her clear script, reinforcing the stereotype of girl = neat handwriting/boy = messy handwriting. Although Umi appears self-sufficient, she gives somewhat the impression that she’ll make Shun a ‘good wife’ one day. Interestingly, her mother Ryoko (Fubuku Jun) is much more a symbol for the future, as she leaves her children behind much of the time to pursue her dreams as an academic researcher abroad.

Glorious days of youth, long, long ago.

Studio Ghibli’s films generally fall into two major categories: there are the light-hearted tales, such as 「ホーホケキョとなりの山田くん」 (Hōhokekyo Tonari no Yamada-kun/My Neighbours the Yamadas, 1999) or 「魔女の宅急便」 (Majo no Takkyūbin/Kiki’s Delivery Service, 1989) that make your heart sing with the beauty of being alive (happiness, hardship & all), and then there are the profoundly moralistic grand narratives that resolutely tackle serious issues of humanity (war, exploitation and destruction of nature and so forth), as in 「風の谷のナウシカ」 (Kaze no Tani no Naushika/Nausicäa of the Valley of the Wind, 1984) or 「もののけ姫」 (Mononoke Hime/Princess Mononoke, 1997). Even with the underlying message that the old contains values worth preserving, Kokuriko-zaka Kara is situated closer towards the ‘light-hearted’ end of the spectrum. Not quite reaching the level of the best representatives of the category (「耳をすませば」/Mimi o Sumaseba/Whisper of the Heart, 1995, takes the top spot in my opinion), it is a charming Studio Ghibli film and, if not the most memorable one for most viewers, should hold a lot of nostalgia-inducing meaning for those who grew up in that long bygone era of the 1960s Japan.

1It might not be so, however. [Spoiler alert] The film itself suggests that the practice of registering an orphaned child under one’s name was common after the Korean war, thus the dramatic twist might not be far-fetched at all. [/Spoiler alert]

Overall Verdict: Miyazaki Gorō’s second feature film overcomes many of the problems of his first one, offering a charming and, particularly for a certain generation of Japanese people, nostalgia-invoking tale at whose heart a group of energisingly passionate students lie.

Rating: 9/10 – The same score as I gave 「借りぐらしのアリエッティ」 (Kari-gurashi no Arietti/Arrietty, 2010), which was more attentive to minutiae, although I have to say that I liked Kokuriko-zaka Kara just a tiny bit better. Even with flaws in the storyline, those students were just so revitalising to watch. I do have a feeling that I might lower these scores to 8/10 over time.

Bonus Bits: 

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