Do you still remember the first time you rewatched an old animated cartoon film as an adult? I still do, and I was amazed that this film- I believe it was a Disney classic- worked for a grown-up audience as well. I realized that it was filled with innuendos, puns, and cultural references and simultaneously worked for its main target audience, the child viewers. Despite the impressive empire of the Walt Disney Company, great animated films have always had a second home in Japan, often with a slightly more poetic and less conventional feel to them. Now, more than two years after its release in Japan, From Up on Poppy Hill, a fascinating coming-of-age story from the famous Japanese Ghibli Studios, finally finds its way into German cinemas and reveals its beautifully drawn magic on big screens around the country.
Ghibli productions have been hugely successful since the studio released its first feature-length animation in the mid-1980s. In contrast to the current US-American trend of computer-animated cartoons, Ghibli films still rely on the charms of carefully hand-painted background images and drawn animated characters with their typically oversized eyes and other embellished features. Being a crucial part of Japanese anime culture, Ghibli films often treat mystery and reality-based themes and stories with a greater complexity than their American counterparts, Disney and Pixar, who have mostly, and very successfully so, used mushy versions of famous fairy tales to attract wider audiences.
From Up on Poppy Hill, on the other hand, based on a comic book for girls, deals with family loss, absent mothers, adoption, a potentially incestuous teenage love, the structures in a student dorm, the Korean War, and the protests against state authorities. Would I have been able to deal with all that had I watched this film as a child? The answer, after some thought, is yes – because the great thing about telling potentially serious and deep stories in the form of an animated cartoon is that, even though some political and social dimensions are lost to a younger audience, the underlying broader messages are still obvious. It’s about friendship, love, solidarity, caring for others and growing up. Apart from that, there are beautifully coloured tableaux to feast your eyes on and jazzy tunes accompany young Umi when she walks through the town of Yokohama.
Umi, which means “ocean” in Japanese, looks at the sea every morning after setting up a flag for the ships she can see from her home. She secretly hopes that her father who was a marine, will return on one of the passing navy vessels, although we learn that he died in the Korean War ten years ago, possibly swallowed by the waves. Umi is introduced as a responsible and independent young woman who takes care of a mansion and its inhabitants up on a hill which overlooks the bay. It is the 1960s and there is a feeling of revolt in the air. Umi’s spacious home is a former hospital, which is now populated by different generations of women who live together in respect and solidarity and in the absence of men. When Umi meets Shun, a male student from her school, she enters a magical palace of thought and chaos: the town’s dorm for men, populated by a group of nerdy, but loveable students of all disciplines. Umi and Shun start a tender relationship until they realize they might be closer to each other than they thought.
It is really difficult to describe an animated cartoon film and its atmosphere properly and I am realising just now that I am doing it for the first time. On the outside, it is all sweet and pretty to look at, enjoyable and entertaining, well narrated and scored with a wonderful soundtrack. The mise-en-scène might be based on very conventional storytelling and yet you are amazed that other ingredients, like a good sound design –the chopping of vegetables, the boiling pot of rice, the splashing when Shun jumps in the pool – make you forget the complete artifice that animation actually is. That is the text. The subtext, and that is the point I am trying to make here, is that animation -if well made- pairs wonderfully with politics, history, gender discourse, and other “grown-up topics,” like love and social protest, while still entertaining audience members who might be too young to think about such things.
From Up on Poppy Hill is sometimes close too kitsch, but that doesn’t matter because the film uses its partly exaggerated beauty to tackle other issues which will be painted and drawn and come to life when a succession of these drawings are strung together in 24 frames per second and unveil a wonderful film which can be your perfect escape from a gloomy autumn day.
From Up on Poppy Hill (Der Mohnblumenberg/ Kokuriko-zaka kara), Japan 2011, 91 min.
director: Goro Miyazaki, cinematography: Atsushi Okui, music: Satoshi Takebe, original language: Japanese, distribution: Universum Film
Japanese with German subtitles: Eiszeit (late screenings only)
German version: Eiszeit (early screenings only), Kino in der Kulturbrauerei, Cinemaxx Potsdamer Platz, UCI Kinowelt Colosseum