Evanston RoundTable, April 11, 2013
Drawings may be the oldest art form we know – consider the cave paintings – yet in movies, like Rodney Dangerfield, they don’t always get much respect. Animated cartoons, movie shorts and the occasional full-length movie have a long history – Disney brought animation to a high art in the 1940s with Pinocchio, Fantasia and Dumbo – but lately it seems the genre has been hijacked by cutesy cars, bugs and piglets.
However the Japanese tradition of anime drawing is restoring the luster to animated movies. Anime (pronounced ani-may) is the term the Japanese use for animated productions, and anime movies are hugely popular in Japan and around the world. When it was released in 2001, the anime film Spirited Away, directed by Hayao Miyazaki, became the top grossing movie in Japanese history. Now local moviegoers have a chance to see a new anime classic with the English-language release of From Up on Poppy Hill, directed by Mr. Hayao’s son, Goro Miyazaki.
The clash between old and new and the enduring link between the generations are prominent themes in the movie. The film takes place in Yokohama during the 1964 run-up to the Tokyo Olympics. Authorities see the Games as a chance to show off Japan’s rebirth as a modern nation and showcase its prosperous future.
When a group of Yokohama teens learns their high school’s decrepit science building, really an old home that has been taken over by the student nerds as a clubhouse, is slated for demolition, they spring into action to preserve the venerated old structure.
A parallel plot involves two of the school’s students, Umi and Shun. Umi’s father, a sailor, died when his ship was blown up during the Korean War. Her mother has gone to study in America and Umi lives with her grandmother, who runs a boarding house high up on Poppy Hill, overlooking the harbor. Every morning Umi raises signal flags meant to guide her father home from the sea. Umi and Shun fall in love, only to discover how the past haunts their romance.
The movie’s artwork is one of its many splendors. Japanese anime has been strongly influenced by traditional Japanese calligraphy and painting. Although there are several anime styles, they usually feature characters drawn with round, Western-looking faces awash in soft, shimmering water color backgrounds. The film’s animation is beautiful and wistful, like Impressionist art. Any still from the movie could be framed for an art collection.
The film’s other elements are equally wondrous. The key characters – Umi and her grandmother plus the boarders who live with them, Shun and the other boys in the clubhouse – are all voiced and drawn with distinctive and delightful personalities. The score features some wonderful light jazz, plus the infectious Japanese pop tune “Sukiyaki,” which will be instantly familiar to anyone who was listening to radio in 1963.
At one point a philosophy student, addressing the chairman of the school’s Board of Trustees, quotes Diogenes: “Human beings have complicated every single gift of the gods.”
But here is a movie that seems like a gift without complications, a simple story that yields a masterpiece and is not to be missed.