Kokuriko-Zaka Kara (From Up on Poppy Hill) marks the second full-length film by Miyazaki’s son, Goro, after his first attempt, Earthsea (Gedo Senki), received only middling response from most Ghibli fans and critics alike. Admittedly, the Ghibli fan response, including my own, was influenced in part by his father’s disapproval at Goro’s sudden rise to director status, something which was exploited fairly heavily by the media – who are always eager for a dramatic headline. Although it is impossible to tell to what extent that unease has been resolved, the elder Miyazaki has lent his hand to the scriptwriting of Kokuriko with a co-author credit, implying at least some level of patching up between them. Unlike previous Ghibli films, Kokuriko made its international premier at the Toronto International Film Festival, and I jumped at the chance to finally see a new Ghibli release in a timely manner.
Although I had presumed, after reading the summary, that the film would reflect the atmosphere of Mimi o Sumaseba, Kokuriko ends up being more like a merging of Umi ga Kikoeru with the flashbacks of Omohide Poroporo (in the latter case, for the depiction of growing up in a bygone era). The setting is small-town Yokohama during the early 60s, a period of rapid economic growth for Japan, with the coming Olympics serving as a platform to showcase Japan’s re-emergence onto the world stage. Unfortunately, the modernization process is threatening the existence of a worn-down clubhouse at a local school attended by our main character – Umi. As the administration closes in, the schoolchildren fight back – arranging rallies, distributing posters, and doing all they can to prevent its demolition – with much of this being headed by an energetic boy named Shun, who becomes a kindred spirit for Umi.
Umi is a girl with most of the essential characteristics that Ghibli heroines tend to have – she is kind, intelligent, hard-working, and easy to like. Her father, a sailor and victim of war, is deceased, while her mother is often away, leading her to take care of most of the residents in her home on Poppy Hill – which appears to be a sort of boarding house for women. Every morning, Umi raises the signal flags in front of her home, a habit she picked up as a token to guide her seafaring father back to safety – and continues to do in his memory. However, as the story begins, someone else – Shun – seems to notice this habit of hers, and references it in a poem in the school paper, inevitably setting off the standard adolescent murmurs around the schoolyard.
Because of the period setting, much of the film is awash with distinct touches of a simpler time (something that I tend to appreciate very easily) and this is probably one of the stronger points of the film. The scenes of daily life, such as the old-fashioned style of cooking or travelling through a road not yet clogged with automobiles, is one way the film achieves this, another is the soundtrack, which makes occasional use of old classics to lend an antiquated feel to the proceedings. The only oddity is a bespectacled friend of Shun’s, whose ice-cool persona seemed oddly contemporary amidst his surroundings.
The story of the clubhouse and the story of the characters – Umi and Shun- occur mostly along different paths (quite unlike, say, Mimi o Sumaseba), while a third strand about Umi’s relationship with her deceased father becomes directly connected with Shun as well. Of those, the first has been executed particularly well. The design of the clubhouse itself, a tall, creaky, imaginative structure where a chemistry club member on one floor can rudely interrupt a wandering philosopher on another, is quite a treat. Despite their occasional differences of opinion, the various members all band together and do what they can to protect their building – newsletters, speeches, stunts, and finally, appeals to those in charge. Although it’s impossible to know exactly which scenes were written by the elder Miyazaki, it’s hard not to think that the scene of debate between students, where a defiant Shun chastises those who “worship the future and forget the past”, is not Miyazaki’s way of harking back to his protesting days as a youth (as he wrote in Starting Point).
The character threads, however, are more of a mixed bag. Essentially, Umi and Shun discover a connecting link in their pasts, and on the positive side, this leads to some quite moving scenes involving Umi’s deceased father and his sailor companions. However, the film unfortunately brings in a somewhat contrived conflict to the (otherwise gentle, as in most Ghibli films) love story that seems unnecessary, as it essentially resolves itself and serves no real purpose other than a few awkward scenes that hover around being melodramatic – though the film is somewhat self-aware of that. Of course, it’s impossible to delve deeper without revealing details of the plot, so I will simply say that the good that came out of this plot point – Shun and Umi bonding through their shared past – could have easily been implemented without the additional “conflict” – and I would have enjoyed the film much more.
The music of Kokuriko is generally pleasant, yet left me wishing for the orchestra-based melodies of Hisaishi and Yuji Nomi’s scores for past Ghibli films – even more so after the somewhat contemporary sound of Karigurashi no Arietty, the previous release. A lush string orchestra would have added quite a bit of elegance to the seaside setting of Kokuriko. Instead, the film begins with a slightly jazzy sound, which gradually morphs into sentimental piano pieces for the remainder of the film. They are relatively enjoyable, but also fairly forgettable. The theme song seems to be rather heavily influenced by Hisaishi’s Kimi o Nosete composition (Edit: signorRossi has pointed out that the song is actually a cover of an older Japanese song – meaning that it was actually Hisaishi who may have been influenced by it, and not the other way around) – with nearly identical chord progressions and heavy similarities in the melodic structure. It is enjoyable (despite the breathy “modern” singing style of the vocalist), but not quite as original as one would hope for.
What we get, in the end, is a story with an excellent and quite nostalgic portrayal of growing up in a particularly interesting place and time – I imagine the film would have tremendous sentimental value for Japanese audiences who grew up in the 60s during that period of expansion. Although the film stumbles awkwardly with its character threads, I would feel comfortable with putting it alongside a film like Umi ga Kikoeru in the Ghibli canon – enjoyable, though not deeply affecting. What I can say, however, is that the film has gone a long way in making me a little more comfortable with Goro’s relatively sudden status as a frontline Ghibli director. While it’s possible that we won’t see the new generation produce classics in the vein of Totoro or Mononoke-hime, judging by this film as well as Karigurashi no Arrietty, the Ghibli style of filmmaking, at least, will not be lost when Miyazaki and Takahata retire.
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