Monday, April 1, 2013

Miyazaki Magic: From Up on Poppy Hill (Kokuriko-zaka Kara)

Those familiar with Hayao Miyazaki's animated films, such as Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, Ponyo, and Kiki's Delivery Service, will be prepared for the U.S. release of From Up on Poppy Hill (Kokuriko-zaka Kara). The movie was directed by his son, Gorō Miyazaki, and co-scripted by Hayao Miyazaki and Keiko Niwa. It is set in Yokohama 1963 and tells the story of the burgeoning relationship between Umi and Shun as they try to prevent the demolition of a dilapidated clubhouse (called the "Latin Quarter") next door to Umi's high school. The story is wonderfully engaging and the visuals stunning. The characters are depicted with typical "anime" features (big eyes, flat shading), though the background scenery is vivid with extraordinary detail or at times with a painterly, watercolor style.

For those not familiar with Hayao Miyazaki, he is often compared to Walt Disney, as his full-length animations have been cherished by generations of children in Asia. A relative from Japan once told me that her kids watched their VHS recording of My Neighbor Totoro so often that the tape wore out from use. Indeed, even before last month's U.S. release of From Up on Poppy Hill, the movie had already grossed $60 million. What is special about movies by Miyazaki is that one can find playful stories aimed primarily toward young children, such as Totoro and Kiki, as well as darker tales, such as Princess Mononoke and Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, which are directed more toward older children (of course all of these are suitable for adults!). If one looks beyond to other animations from Studio Ghibli--the production company co-founded by Miyazaki and Isao Takahata--one can find Grave of the Fireflies by Takahata, a tale of two children trying to survive in Japan during World War II. This adult-oriented story is so heart-wrenching that I would have difficulty watching it again. The broad use of animation to describe a manifold of thoughts and emotions likely comes from the cultural foundation of manga, the comic books of Japan, which span the market from children's stories to adult pornography.

Although comparisons between Miyazaki and Disney are valid, what is apparent while watching a Miyazaki movie is how much our sense of storytelling is culturally based. For one, a Miyazaki movie typically involves a young girl as the main character who must confront a coming-of-age situation, which is true for Umi in Poppy Hill. For Umi, however, the relationship with Shun becomes quite complicated to the point where in the middle of the story Shun comments, "It's like a cheap melodrama"! The heroines in these movies are refreshing, especially compared to the "princesses" in Disney movies; yet, of course Miyazaki's characters are themselves grounded in their own cultural myths of gender and youth.

More interesting to me, from a cultural standpoint, is the lack of a true villain in a Miyazaki movie. In Western philosophy, we are ingrained with a sense of polarity—there's good and evil, right and wrong. We expect to have a defined bad guy that the hero must overcome and defeat. Eastern philosophies tend to acknowledge that goodness or badness often depends upon the context or situation. Psychologist Kaiping Peng has considered how such cultural influences play our thoughts and feelings. Early on, I had problems with Miyazaki movies as there wasn't a defined "bad guy." In fact, sometimes a character that started out seeming to be the evil archenemy suddenly works to assist the hero. In these movies, such as in Poppy Hill, there are of course questions and confrontations that must be addressed and resolved, yet the success of these stories is not the overthrow or defeat of some evil villain. In these movies we don't even need a final chase scene. My point: for a charming and engaging movie that is universally appealing, go see From Up on Poppy Hill