From Up On Poppy Hill [Kokuriko-zaka Kara] (2011)

Close Knit Family

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Opening a film in which the protagonist is seen getting out of bed and going about their morning routine is one of the most cliché ways of beginning a story (i.e, every student film ever), but From Up On Poppy Hill is so utterly likeable that I don’t care. Set in Japan’s port city of Yokohama circa 1963, the romantic, seaside setting really amps the film’s likeability with the accompanying nostalgic soundtrack being a pure delight from the opening ragtime theme to the Nina Rota style compositions as well as the use of Kyu Sakamoto’s Ue o Muite Arukō (known in the US as Sukiyaki in which it charted at number 1 in 1963). With a script from Miyazaki Sr and directed by Miyazaki Jr, From Up On Poppy Hill is structured like a melodrama with its use of dramatic flashbacks and the common melodramatic trope of a maritime setting. At one point the picture even makes reference to its melodramatic state (“It’s like some cheap melodrama”).

Umi Matsuzaki is the eldest child in her family and has responsibility thrust upon her following her father’s death and her mother’s departure to study abroad resulting in her making everyone’s meals, keeping fiancés in check and raising maritime signal flags every morning. The selfless and humble nature of a character like this could easily come off as aggrandizing but rather the character of Umi does come off as somewhat inspirational with her ability to bring out the best in those around her, earning her the title of “Goddess of good luck”. Umi develops feelings for fellow student Shun Kazama, however, Shun ends up discovering as a result of post-war circumstances, that Umi is actually his sister (although this turns out not to be the case come the film’s end). The two are forced to continue as only friends although it’s evident they are trying to retrain their feelings for each other. This culminates in a scene by a bus stop in which Umi states “I’m in love with you Shun. Even if we’re related, even if you’re my brother, my feelings will never change” to which Shun responds “I feel the same about you”. There is historic precedence for this as From Up On Poppy Hill is set at the time following the war in which young couples in Japan couldn’t be too sure that they were not related in some way but it doesn’t change the fact that the scene is an absolutely jaw-dropping moment. The scene is played out to be romantic and perhaps the movie could have dealt with the subject matter in a different manner as opposed to upping the swoon factor over an incestuous relationship but I digress.

The other major plot point present in From Up On Poppy Hill regards the theme of traditionalism vs modernism as the students of the local high-school try to save their clubhouse known as The Latin Quarter which is set to be demolished and replaced with a new building ahead of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. The Latin Quarter in its old state is a massive, creaky building with so much character contained within its walls in which every inch is in use – as a viewer I did become invested in its conservation. At a demolition meeting, Shun runs onto the stage like Elmer Gantry and declares “There’s no future for people who worship the future and forget the past”. Unintentionally prescient with this theme is that come the turn of the decade when From Up On Poppy Hill was released, the west had entirely done away with traditional animation on the big screen (bar a few pockets), whereas Japan has so far never let it go. Correspondingly, it is wholesome just how passionate these students are about learning (in particular the overly enthusiastic philosophy-loving giant) with The Latin Quarter having a club for just about every intellectual pursuit. Compare this to any American film set in a frat house where anarchy, mischief and mayhem are the name of the game. Alongside Umi and the responsibility thrust upon her, all these kids are more than ready for adulthood. I for one welcome our new oriental overlords.

Speaking of references to other pictures, in one of the film’s establishing shots, a single factory chimney is shown emitting Pink smoke whereas the others emit regular smoke. Anyone who has seen Akira Kurosawa’s High and Low will understand this possible reference, keeping in mind the Kurosawa picture is also set in Yokohama and was released in 1963 (so I can assume both these movies unofficially take place in the same universe). Likewise, when Umi sees her mother’s red slippers as an indication that she has returned home after months away, is this a nod to The Wizard Of Oz and its famous line “There’s no place like home”?

If there is one great standout supporting character in From Up On Poppy Hill has to be the high school’s chairman Chief Director Tokumaru, a total chad with his rough, gravely voice, larger-than-life figure, flawless posture and upbeat personality. He is not at all a typical, slimy bureaucrat and understands the kids on their level and is sympathetic to their cause. When the kids go to visit his office in Tokyo, he asks Umi in the past tense “what did your father do?”. There is no indication that he knew the kids beforehand and seems to instinctively know her father was dead. Having a figure like this in a position of power probably explains how the students were able to infiltrate the Ikiru level bureaucracy to save The Latin Quarter.  

Whisper Of The Heart [Mimi o Sumaseba] (1995)

I Don’t Think There’s Any Artist Of Any Value Who Doesn’t Doubt What They Are Doing

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Whisper Of The Heart is Studio Ghibli’s love letter to creatives and a picture which contains great insight into the uncertainty derived from growing up and the role of education in this nostalgic coming-of-age tale. Fourteen-year-old Shizuku Tsukishima is the cheerful and infectiously optimistic protagonist of the story. She manages to find the joy in the mundanity of everyday life from something as simple as the sun coming out to seeing a positive message on the side of a blimp. Just observe the pure joy she gets from finding a quirky antiques store in a suburb (perhaps a bit too much as she nearly gets hit by a car while running across the road and never realizes it). The eccentricity of Japan is even on subtle display from the fact that a pork pie hat can be worn in common parlance and a girl can pursue a chonky cat for quite some distance just for the fun of it. It’s this aspect of Whisper Of The Heart which really makes you want to cherish life’s little moments.

Whisper Of The Heart is set over the course of 1994 (as indicated by Shizuku’s calendar), with a number of subtle indications for the passing of time throughout the film. The most noticeable of these being the seasonal variation of Shizuku’s school uniform with a white top for spring/summer and a navy-blue alternative for fall/winter. The initial catalyst of the story is set into motion when Shizuku’s father informs her that the local library is going through a transition from the old-fashioned book card system to a barcode system, much to her disappointment (I can recall my local library still using book cards in the early 2010’s). Goddammit modernity, sometimes the old ways are just better! It’s this tradition which ignites the film’s romance as Shizuku notices someone by the name of Seiji Amasawa has been taking out all the same books as her in this variation on The Shop Around The Corner formula re-imagined for the 1990’s. Shizuku and Seiji themselves aren’t too dissimilar to Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan in Ernst Lubitsch’s 1940 romantic comedy with Seiji’s initially jerky behaviour and Shizuku’s bookworm personality (unfortunately, when I was off this age any expression of a desire to read was social suicide – sad but true). 

As is a common recurrence in Studio Ghibli’s films, Whisper Of The Heart is the story of a young, teenage girl forced into a position of maturity (it does make sense that the female sex tends to be the focus of these stories as research has shown that girls on average mature faster than boys). One major interlocked aspect of Whisper Of The Heart is the classic conflict of education vs. hands-on/real-world experience. Shizuku is attending middle school (aka junior high school) and is studying for her high-school entrance exams. Her love interest Seiji on-the-other-hand opts to attend a trade school in Cremona, Italy to further learn the craft of making violins rather than attend high school, much against his parent’s wishes (high school is not compulsory in Japan). This disapproval highlights the lack of respect one can entail for a practical hands-on profession over a more middle-class, so-called “real job”. Part of Shizuku’s impetus to embark on her writing of a novel comes from the insecurity that Seiji is far more developed in his own art form. Her focus on writing begins to affect her school grades, feeling that her need to write a first draft of her novel within two months before Seiji returns from Italy is more important than her school grades. Unlike Seiji, Shizuku doesn’t know what she wants to do with her future. She asks her older sister Shiho when she decided on her future, to which she responds with the dubious answer, “I’m at university finding that out”. This quote is particularly prevalent from a UK-centric point-of-view, when official figures state in the year 2017/18, 50.2 per cent of English 17-30-year-olds had participated in higher education, 20 years after the New Labour government set the target of having 50% of young people attend university (with these degrees often being of a useless nature and provide no stepping stone to a future career). From a personal point of view, I didn’t know what I wanted to do with the rest of my life when I was 14 and it’s self-evident very few people of that age either have any idea. Seiji’s oddball choice of profession as a violin maker is an appropriate one at the end of the day as his character is an outlier of a person in their teens who has a definitive idea of what they want to do with their life. The film doesn’t take a position on the question on the role of higher education but does raise many a thought-provoking point as to its effectiveness. Come the film’s end, Shizuku returns to studying for her entrance exams. I can however relate to Shizuku’s unwillingness and nervous disposition to tell the rest of her family about her writing project even though they are aware something is occupying her time, to which her understanding parents sympathize and don’t question her on it any further.

Seiji’s grandfather and owner of the antiques store Shiro explains how artists or writers develop and grow in their talents with a simple metaphor – “The rough stone is inside you. You have to find it and then polish it”. Shizuku holds intense self-doubt about her work, disagreeing with anyone when they praise her work. This intensely self-critical manner and strive for perfection overtakes her and leads to overpowering anxiety when she shows Shiro the first draft of her novel. To quote filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola, “I don’t think there’s any artist of any value who doesn’t doubt what they are doing.” – It’s this which really drives at the heart of Whisper Of The Heart. The picture showcases the highs and the lows that can be endured by creatives and parallels between the feeling of falling in love and the thrill that comes with creative pursuits. That scene in which a band has an impromptu performance of Country Roads as Shizuku sings her little heart out and gradually falls for Seiji (still unaware he is the boy on her book cards) combines these elements in a wonderfully corny scene. Whisper Of The Heart does hold parallels to fellow Ghibli film Kiki’s Delivery Service with protagonists succumbing to stress, burnout and depression (also is Shizuku’s older sister a recycled character model of Ursula?). Whisper Of The Heart is after all set in a country in which death by overwork is so tragically common that it even has a name – Karoshi (“You doctor yet? No Dad I’m 12. Talk to me when you doctor!”). The ultimate irony of this is that the Whisper Of The Heart’s director Yoshifumi Kondo would pass away 3 years following the film’s release from an aneurysm brought on by overwork. Whisper Of The Heart would be his only directorial feature, with Kondo joining the likes of Charles Laughton or Walter Murch as directors who have helmed only a single film, but what a film it would be.

My first viewing of Whisper Of The Heart was somewhat marred by the film’s misleading (albeit still beautiful) poster, giving me the false assumption that Whisper Of The Heart was going to be a fantasy film in the vein of a picture like Labyrinth. This lead me to wonder when this non-existent fantasy element was going to kick in during the film’s first third, only to then realize it wasn’t that kind of film. The fantasy sequence inside Shizuku’s head which inspired the poster in which Shizuku and an anthropomorphic cat known as The Baron fly Superman ’78 style is a beautiful combination of fantasy and reality as those giant pillars (which do remind me of the backgrounds in Super Mario World) raise high into the sky above the suburbs of Shizuku’s world of West Tokyo. It’s easy to sound like a broken record when talking about the aesthetics of Studio Ghibli’s films, but god, this film is just so beautiful to look at it puts a smile on my face from the eye-popping colour of suburban Tokyo to those urban night-time landscapes. Even the film’s more mundane subjects such as the apartment block in which the Tsukishima family resides would be ugly in real life but has a certain beauty to it in the animated form. Correspondingly, the music score by Yuji Nomi is one of great variety from the whimsical nature of A Hilly Town to the Aussie outback vibe from The Cat Chases and even medieval-themed compositions with the track Engelszimmer. These pieces of orchestrated beauty make for a welcome contrast with the film’s urban setting however the film does also provide some more in-tune accompaniments to the Tokyo landscape with its use of electronic sounds and synthesizers as heard in Taking The Train and Starry Night Sky. Furthermore, I can’t help but notice similarities between the track A Hilly Town and the piece In The Evening Midst from the oddball, Japanese horror movie House, while these two aforementioned pieces of music surely must have influenced Michael Giacchino’s piece Married Life from Pixar’s Up (is it just me or do these three pieces of music work extremely well when listened to in tandem?). Whisper Of The Heart is also a rare instance of Ghibli film to feature licensed music with its recurring use of variations with John Denver’s Country Roads, including a real humdinger of a cover during the film’s end credits in which it is given the city-pop treatment. Correspondingly, like many a Japanese film, the always reliable sound of cicadas increases the atmosphere of anything tenfold.

Whisper Of The Heart concludes with a very sudden marriage proposal from Seiji to Shizuku. In the original manga from which the film is adapted, Seiji only says “I love you” but the film’s screenwriter Hayao Miyazaki changed the line to “I can’t say how soon it’ll be, but would you marry me?“. To quote the big man himself in defending this position – “I wanted to make a conclusion, a definite sense of ending. Too many young people now are afraid of commitment, and stay on moratorium forever. I wanted these two to just commit to something, not just ‘well, we’ll see what will happen”. Putting aside the oddity of receiving and accepting a marriage proposal when neither are of legal marrying age, I do agree this sense of commitment coming from these characters gives the film’s conclusion greater emotional weight (although I will say the film ends very abruptly and could have done with a few seconds to let the viewer take it all in). The Japanese and English dubs have different lines of dialogue in this final scene. In the Japanese version, Seiji makes the aforementioned proposal to which Shizuku nods and Seiji asks if she’s sure to which she replies “That’s exactly what I wanted.” However, in the English dub, their discussion of marriage is more tenuous. Seiji asks, “Could you see us getting married someday?” to which Shizuku nods and they agree that his question was corny. It feels like those responsible for the picture’s English dub had a lack of faith in the source material and outright disrespected it with said changes. Regardless, I am a sucker for a good story of hopeless romantics and this impulsive love present in the original Japanese version of Whisper Of The Heart defiantly delivers on the desired level of swooning.

Drunken Angel [Yoidore Tenshi] (1948)

Drain The Swamp

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Drunken Angel marks the beginning of Akira Kurosawa’s golden age in the first of the 16 film collaboration with Toshiro Mifune (6th out of a whopping 21 films with Takashi Shimura). Drunken Angel is a movie thick with atmosphere, set in a slum with worn out buildings in which a lone guitar player comes out at night overlooking a toxic bog (possibly created from a bomb crater) laden with prostitutes next to a medical practice – a metaphor for all that was rotten about life in the wake of Japan’s catastrophic wartime defeat. You can almost feel the heat and humidity come off the screen while during the film’s daytime scenes the city comes alive with the diegetic music echoing in the background. No city is mentioned by name but a sign in the background of one scene reads in English “Social Center Of Tokyo”.

The chemistry between Toshiro Mifune and Takashi Shimura is electric – The chemistry between Toshiro Mifune and Takashi Shimura is electric – watching the two interact in the film’s opening scene they could easily carry the entire picture by themselves. A very youthful, handsome and suave Mifune is Matsunaga, a big shot member of the Yakuza (although the word is never mentioned in the film). With athletic agility, cat-like moves and his fashion choices of striped shirts and zoot suits, I do get some George Raft vibes from his performance. He shares a fascinating relationship with the brash, ill-tempered but dedicated Dr Sanada (Shimura) as he attempts to cure him of tuberculosis. The two hesitantly develop mutual respect for each other (Matsunaga reminds Sanada of himself during his youth as he states at one point) despite their highly tumultuous, sometimes violent interactions. In Drunken Angel Kurosawa doesn’t want to glamorize the Yakuza, but rather expose them as a blight on Japanese society. 

Drunken Angel is a classic story of addiction, in which “just one more drink” turns into a night of binging as Matsunaga drinks himself to death. The fantasy dream sequence involving Matsunaga opening a coffin on the beach only to find himself inside feels like something from a silent horror movie and is even quite Bergman-esque. It also feels reminiscent of the scene in The Empire Strikes Back in which Luke Skywalker finds his own face within Darth Vader’s helmet. The climax of Drunken Angel on the other hand features the type of cinematic images that you never forget as a weak and ill Matsunaga tries to fight his boss Okada as the two are covered in paint and scrambling on the ground before Mutsunga is stabbed and collapses by a balcony – it feels reminiscent of the iconic endings in various Warner Bros gangster films. Had this been a Hollywood production I can easily see it being a vehicle for James Cagney and Pat O’Brien, with perhaps Bogart as Okada?

It’s fascinating to see how much western trends are embraced in Japan, something which is often surprise to newcomers of Japanese film (I do love the interior of the dance hall with the giant playing cards on the walls as well as the Bolero Club with its Iberian ascetics and music). Yet at its heart Drunken Angel remains a story of post-war Japan with its characters and setting being an allegory using illness and contamination as a metaphor for the state of the nation. Matsunaga can be seen as a symbol of the Japan of yesteryear, struggling to find relevance in this new world while Sanada is a broken Japan trying to forge ahead. Sanda’s assistant Miyo (Chieko Nakakita) refuses to let go of her gangster, ex-boyfriend who ruined her life – a Japan which is pinning for what has been lost. However it is the young schoolgirl (Yoshiko Kuga) of whom Dr Sanda cures of tuberculosis provides the film with an optimistic, wholesome ending -a sign of Japan yet to come.