From Up On Poppy Hill

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We’ve only seen Gendo Senki (Tales from Earthsea), Miyazaki Hayao’s son Goro’s first film, once, and prior to this, it was the most recent Ghibli film we had seen, having skipped out on Ponyo and Arriety (for the time being.) While repeated viewings are not a requisite for a film’s greatness as far as we’re concerned (sometimes, watching a great film just once can be enough), suffice it to say we don’t remember much about it, other than the fact we didn’t hate it. What drew us to this film was the promise that it was a relatively straightforward slice-of-life romance, not based on any beloved epic series with defensive authors and built-in skeptical fan bases. On its face, this film reminded us of perhaps our favorite Ghibli film, Kondou Yoshifumi’s Whisper of the Heart, the review for which you can read here.

We were immediately enthralled by Whisper’s fiercely beautiful picture of West Tokyo in the nineties, the intricately-detailed, loving depiction of life for a middle class family during in that time and place, and most importantly, the touching romance that developed between Shizuku and Seiji. “This is how it’s done,” we thought as we watched it. These are the heights anime is capable of.” With that lofty praise in mind, don’t think we’re bashing Up On Poppy Hill because it didn’t quite reach the soaring heights of Whisper. In fact, we urge any romance, Ghibli, or just plain anime fans to pick up a copy of Poppy Hill (we got a deal on the Blu-Ray through Amazon) and give it a watch as soon as you can. We found it to be an exceedingly lovely film.

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While many Ghibli films are portals to fantastical dimensions, Poppy Hill is a time machine to 1963, the year before Tokyo hosts the Olympics for the first time ever—and just eighteen years after the bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This means our protagonists—Umi and Shun—are of the postwar generation: not a party to the horrors of the past but well-versed in the scars their elders bear. To that end, old-style pre-war buildings all over the country are being torn down at a steady pace, as if they were contaminated by the past. One such building is the “Latin Quarter” – a magnificent but thoroughly-trashed French-style mansion on school grounds used as a headquarters for many of the school’s clubs. It’s the fight to save this house that brings Umi and Shun together.

From the beginning we see that Umi is a strong, hardworking no-nonsense young lady; even her bouncy little side braids suggest she’s somewhat “tightly wound”. She’s the first to wake up to cook for her family and the boarders who share her house, which is perched upon a hill overlooking the harbor. She is haunted by the loss of her father, a sailor killed aboard a supply ship in the Korean War, and raises flags every morning as a message to him that is never answered. When a poem in the school newspaper mentions her flags, she seeks out the author, just as Shizuku sought out the guy who checked out the same library books as her. Her first face-to-face encounter with the boy is when he jumps out of the house into a pool, and she reflexively offers him a helping hand, not thinking how it would look to the assembled masses of her peers.

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Umi’s grandmother is worried Umi is working too hard for everyone and not looking after her own happiness, while dwelling too much on the loss of her father. She hopes Umi will meet someone to help her find that happiness…and she does. It’s fun to watch her step into another world—at the behest of her little sister, who wants Shun’s autograph—as the two brave the appallingly filthy and chaotic Latin Quarter to find him. Where before she had been content with her studies and house duties and not interested in boys, her first taste of that world changes her mind in a hurry, and she’s smitten. For his part, Shun, while having a reputation for being a “live wire”, is never anything but respectful, warm, and chivalrous to Umi.

It’s Umi who first plants the kernel of an idea in Shun and the leaders of the Quarter that if it were cleaned up, prepare and made into a place where guys and girls alike would want to be, perhaps the demolition ball could be stayed. The film, like us, is firmly on the side of those who don’t want the building to go. Poppy Hill doesn’t just excel at portraying an utterly gorgeous slice of Japan’s past in terms of the buildings and bustling seaside vistas, but in the pulse of the youth of the moment, angered by their elders’ insistence on erasing history and culture to make themselves feel better. The debate over the Quarter is charged with passion, and Umi is in the back of the hall, soaking it all up.

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The campaign to beautify the Quarter is initiated, and like Kiki’s room at the bakery or Howl’s Moving Castle, once it’s cleaned up, it’s a much more welcoming and comfortable-looking place, rather than a dank cave. But as things look up for the Quarter, after a visit to Umi’s house when she shows Shun a photo of her father, there’s a distinct change in Shun, and he starts avoiding her. She can’t make out what’s eating him, even though we do. When she finally confronts him, he tells her: they’re brother and sister. Umi’s dejection after learning this truth may be more subtle than, say, Shizuku’s, but no less powerfully felt; as even the mundane tasks she used to take pride become a struggle with such dispiritedness hanging over her.

Siblings or no, the two remain friends and follow through with the Save the Quarter campaign, traveling to Tokyo and waiting in a hall way for many hours to speak to the man who will decide the building’s fate, and indeed already has, not knowing the transformation it’s undergone. Umi’s unassuming, earnest appeal instantly impresses the man, who agrees to an immediate inspection tour. The students pull out all the stops welcoming him, and the vastly-improved state of the building, as well as the enthusiasm of the kids themselves, compel him to change his mind.

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That same day, Shun gets word news from his adoptive father: the third man in the photo is aboard ship in the harbor, who confirms that Umi and Shun had different fathers, the two others in that photo. Umi and Shun aren’t related by blood, which is good, because they’re in love with each other. Is this ending quite neat and tidy, and all the twists and turns somewhat soap opera-y? Perhaps, but because we were so emotionally invested in Umi and Shun, and held out hope Shun was mistaken about their lineage, it didn’t bother us. We didn’t think it would’ve necessarily been a better film had they been deprived of a happy life together, any more than if the Quarter had been torn down.

A powerful idea Umi conveys in her confession to Shun on a streetcar platform stuck with us throughout the rest of the film: all the while she’d been raising those flags up on the hill, Shun was responding with flags on his dad’s tug, only she never had the angle to see them. Now that she knows about them, she decided to believe her father answered the flags too: by sending Shun into her life. Her long wait was over: no longer a girl living only for a day that would never come—the day her father returned—she found a place in her heart for someone new—someone alive—and discovered how new and exciting and nice life could be when you’re in love. We discovered that Ghibli has a bright future. This is how it’s done.

9_superiorRating: 9 (Superior)

Stray Observations:

  • The hallmark of every Ghibli film is a constant feeling of “I want to go to there,” and Poppy is no different.
  • While it lacked the sublime soaring orchestrations that are another Ghibli hallmark, we were really into the period-specific soundtrack. It was at times moving, soulful, joyful, and downright toe-tapping.
  • We’ll also fully admit to having our heartstrings tugged on on numerous occasions; there was nothing shallow or forced about any of the drama; we felt Umi’s pain and frustrations and often teared up when she teared up.
  • On the note of Ghibli tropes is the dream that starts with a girl walking along, crying in a golden field, which dates back to Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, which turns thirty this year (our review of that here.)

Sekai Seifuku: Bouryaku no Zvezda – 04

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Like every far-flung, wacky Zvezda adventure Jimon Asuta has ended up on, this latest one has a very modest, innocent start: he cooks Roboko’s typically raw udo. That becomes a much bigger deal than he thought because A.), Roboko only eats raw udo; B.), raw udo is Roboko’s sole energy source, and C.), that was the last of the udo in the kitchen. When he heads down to the basement (50m underground) he finds a huge growth of udo (looking very similar to the core of Laputa, by the way) and learns that the entire Zvezda HQ runs on the stuff. But something’s no right: the udo starts to die, and all the lights go out. Adventure time!

It’s the ease and deftness with which Zvezda snowballs little incidents that makes it such a fun show to watch; like Space Dandy, it keeps you on your toes, not knowing quite what’s going to be on the menu from week to week. This also makes sense, as Zvezda is commanded by a little girl who can be fickle, impulsive, and just downright random, and also needs afternoon naps. This week the mission to find the original udo is undertaken by Asuta, Kate, and Natasha, about whom we learn a lot more. Last week we got Gorou and Yasu’s story, but Natasha’s story gets a lot more texture and depth, as the trio descends further into the “Super Ancient Udogawa Civilization.”

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What also gets a lot of texture and depth is the vast, crazy underground setting itself; from Natasha’s little 8-bit locator device to the montage of RPG-like battles and events to the alien look of the place, it’s definitely a pleasing change of scenery full of neat little details. There’s a great sense of occasion and grandeur to the journey, which for Natasha becomes a journey to her past, which she must confront in order to complete the mission. While her childhood story starts out relatively normal—she reclusive child who spent her waking hours building robots—it takes a bizarrely intriguing (and very apropos for Natasha) twist.

The foray into the past starts with a dream that Natasha has while sleepwalking into Asuta’s bed. Natasha isn’t quite clear about it, but she either ran away from home, like Asuta, when her parents insisted she stop inventing, or they weren’t her parents at all and took her to the “land of the faeries”—Ancient Udogawa. In any case, she was alone and lost—and then she wasn’t—when she met Roboko and then Kate, to whom she swore fealty. It’s fitting then that Roboko saves her again from the dark, shadowy echoes of her past, giving Kate and Asuta time to pollinate the Udo. Any charges of a deus ex machina are negated by this simple fact: Roboko could eat cooked Udo all along; she just hadn’t gathered the courage to try it.

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Rating: 8 
(Great)

Nisekoi – 04

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If left to their own devices, Raku and Kosaki would remain stationary for eternity, so it’s up to their respective friends-of-the-same-sex to nudge them towards some kind of action. Enter Maiko Shuu (Kaji Yuki) and Miyamoto Ruri (Uchiyama Yumi), who immediately establish themselves as the most perceptive people in the cast by far, which is to say they’re not dense as insulation foam. Both of them see right through Raku and Chitoge’s sorry excuse for a fake relationship, and at the same time, know full well that Kosaki has the hots for Raku and vice versa. If anything, they’re a pretty annoyed the two haven’t become an item yet, and now things are complicated by Chitoge.

Realizing nothing will happen if Raku and Kosaki aren’t at least in regular contact, Ruri arranges a study group at Raku’s manor. Kosaki’s presence in Raku’s house, his room, and right beside him is more than he can take, rendering him totally unhelpful in the homework department, while Onodera is equally nervous (she really digs the fact Raku’s room smells like him). Their odd behavior is not lost on Ruri or Shuu, but the yakuzas are just upset Raku isn’t putting any moves on Chitoge, so they set a very silly and obvious trap, and the two fake lovers end up locked in the dark together. This situation essentially nullifies Ruri’s original intent to bring Raku and Onodera back together, and further muddies Raku’s romantic waters.

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That’s because Chitoge turns out to be severely nyctophobic and claustrophobic (due to a traumatic five-hour experience in a washing machine). Her harsh facade melts away, revealing her weak side. In the dark stillness, with her clutching him tightly from behind, Raku notices for the first time just how beautiful she is. When he refuses to leave her alone while he climbs a ladder out to get help, Chitoge notices that once again, Raku is being a cool, considerate gentleman, and has no choice but to add that to the growing list of positive qualities he possesses. They come very very close to kissing, thanks to her perfectly-timed trip-fall.

Then Claude bursts in, gun drawn, followed by Kosaki who both get the wrong idea about the couple being locked in the shed together, and undo whatever progress Raku had made with Kosaki, which was minimal anyway. But we don’t think Claude and Kosaki’s idea was completely wrong. After all, we hear Raku thinking to himself he can’t fall for Chitoge; he’s already promised his heart to Kosaki (despite not knowing she’s the keeper of the key). Chitoge too feels the need to ammend her own diary to admit Raku did good today, and she’s determined not to fall for him. But it’s clearly already happening. One fact that may be in Shuu and Ruri’s blind spot: it’s not necessarily the love Raku and Chitoge are faking; it’s the hate.

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Rating: 8 
(Great)

Stray Observations:

  • Another reason Chitoge has not to hate Raku: he’s helped her find her social bearings at school, and she’s smiling a lot more as a result.
  • Hiyama Nobuyuki is his exuberant best playing fiery warrior-types, and his Ryuu here is no exception, adding zest and vitality to a bit role.
  • While Shuu and Ruri know full well Raku’s feelings for Kosaki, Chitoge has no idea. But interestingly, she worships Kosaki as the Perfect Girl just as Raku does, and isn’t taken aback at all by his ebullient praise.
  • Shuu points out twice that he and Ruri should be pals because “after all, they both wear glasses.” Ruri isn’t convinced.
  • As much as we hate her doing them, Kosaki’s “crazed panic flights” are fun to watch.

Samurai Flamenco – 15

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Ah, now that’s better. For now, Masayoshi’s evil clone is just a red herring, and the From Beyond crisis is thankfully brought to a close with a somewhat clunky resolution: The Flamengers fly Flamen Robo into Mt. Fuji’s caldera and physcially beat the giant drill up until it breaks. All the From Beyond baddies disappear, Cloneayoshi kills himself with Masayoshi’s ray gun. The Flamengers get more awards, parades, and national praise, and then disband, their job done. With all this in the first half, one would expect a cooling-off period in which Masayoshi checks in with the characters who had been marginalized throughout the last arc. One would be wrong.

As stupid as Torture was, and as even stupider as From Beyond was, the show has thankfully not dwelled on them any longer than they needed to (though we had a problem with them dwelling on them at all). So it wastes no time introducing Masayoshi’s latest foe, and what do you know: It’s The Government. Nothing unites the people quite like a common threat, and the government furnished that threat in From Beyond. The Flamengers and other heroes were conscripted to be the hero of the public, but grew too popular. With control of the mass media, it was a simple matter to find and apprehend them all, and throw Masayoshi & Co. under the bus by proclaiming they were terrorists who orchestrated From Beyond to throw Japan into chaos and grab power.

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Before the cops get to Masayoshi, he’s lucky enough to be found by Mister Justice first, a hulking, boisterous American counterpart to Kaname, who has also been made persona non grata by the government that betrayed him. While the show hardly needed another blowhard beefsteak superhero, Mister Justice is a hoot to watch, whether he’s humming The Star-Spangled Banner to “calm” Hazama in his conspicuous star-spangled semi, or beating up an entire SWAT team; scolding them for not eating enough oatmeal and red meat. And he genuinely seems to want to help Masayoshi, successfully covering his escape.

Masayoshi now suddenly finds himself an enemy of the state, with a very famous face and even more famous disguise. But he’s not alone: Sumi, Kanno, Harazuka, and Gotou remain free (for now), as does MMM (though judging from Mari’s body language MMM might be over); all could help him in various ways. The first step would seem to be freeing the other four Flamengers from custody. But after the way Aoshima gets destroyed by Prime Minister Okuzaki, that probably won’t be easy. But then nothing is when you’re fighting on the side of right.

7_very_goodRating: 7 (Very Good)