Arts and Culture

'From up on Poppy Hill' and 'Spring Breakers'

Miyazaki explores young love. Former Disney stars portray young lust. 'Tis the season.

By Dorothy Woodend 30 Mar 2013 |

Dorothy Woodend writes about film for The Tyee twice a month. Find her previous articles here.

Oh, spring. When young minds turn to thoughts of love, and older minds turn to memories of the very same thing.

At this time of year I feel as if I live in two worlds, the present and the past. Maybe it's a certain smell in the air, or the sudden change in the light, but the world is new again, infused with a level of possibility as green and delicate as an unfurled bud. That same quality is in every frame of From up on Poppy Hill, written by Hayao Miyazaki and directed by his son Goro. Set in 1963, it is a story of young love between a girl named Umi and a boy named Shun. But like any good Studio Ghibli film, it's also about a few more complicated and complex notions.

Umi lives with her grandmother and her younger siblings in a boarding house in Yokohama. Her father is lost at sea and her mother is studying in America. A serious-minded, hardworking girl, she cooks and cares for her family and the other women who live in the house with a level of duty unexpected in one so young. In addition to the housekeeping, every morning she raises a series of signal flags, visible to the boats in the harbour.

All of this introduction is presented against a backdrop of gentle '60s pop tunes and period detail. From the rice cooker that Umi must fire up every morning to make breakfast to the heavy black bicycle that Shun labours around town on, your eyes and your brain have time to wander around, gathering all of these lovely bits and pieces into a larger sense of place and atmosphere. This attention to the smallest matters makes the time and the place understandable and, most importantly, tangible. Maybe where things reside in the kitchen isn't as important as the larger plot points that come later, but showing it places the viewer inside a very real world.

Saving the clubhouse

The connection to the past through old things and older ways of doing things becomes explicitly clear when Umi heads off to high school. Here she meets a young firebrand named Shun Kazama. A passionate, fiery young man, Shun is dedicated to the preservation of a moldering manse called the Latin Quarter that the boys use as their clubhouse. Shun makes a spectacular entrance by leaping off the roof of the place to raise awareness that the building is under threat. The school administration has decreed that the place is slated for demolition to make way for a brand new building.

All across the country similar demolitions are underway as the country readies itself for the 1964 Olympic Games. The clash between old and new makes for an intertidal moment, a time of change. But even as the older folks are raring to develop, to modernize, and move on, it is the kids who are clinging hard to the past, in the form of an ancient pile of a clubhouse.

As Umi and Shun work together to save The Latin Quarter -- he writes raging editorials for the school paper, she brings an army of girls to clean the place -- the richness of detail is almost overwhelming. The lush, variegated depiction of the Latin Quarter brings to mind other Miyazaki locales (the bathhouse of the Gods in Spirited Away, or the zeppelin of Castle in the Sky) with a similar combination of strangeness and familiarity.

It is hard to not give yourself over to the warmth and seductiveness of nostalgia on display here. We humans are hardwired for the stuff. The word nostalgia stems from a compounding of the Greek roots for home and pain. Which seems a very apt description of the particular quality of Miyazaki's most famous films, namely a yearning for a place, even if it's a place that you've never been to or one that doesn't actually exist. This quality is shared by another artist of nostalgia, Wes Anderson, who devotes as much love and attention to the places where his characters live as he does to the things that they do. Think the submarine of Steve Zissou, or the Summer's End house of Moonrise Kingdom. People and places often grow indistinguishable from one another and if you don't believe me, think about your grandparent's house infused with a soul-deep comfort of counter-tops and sunshine.

Potent atmosphere

The Latin Quarter with its multiple floors, endless series of rooms and Escheresque staircases houses an infestation of geeky schoolboys. Here they are free to pursue arcane interests, be it philosophy, astronomy, or chemistry. The place is literally crawling with obsessive teenagers, debating the merits of scientific method, Plato and whether geology can be made cool once again. Naturally Umi and her girlfriends are reluctant to enter the place, since it is the sole domain of the Y chromosome. But enter they do, under the guise of asking for Shun's autograph. Moments after setting foot in the place, they're put to work. They are charmed by the old; they take joy in hand-printed newspapers and stencils. The tactile physical world with all its specificity and loveliness comes rushing back again.

The Yokohama of 1963 might have borne a strong resemblance to the sites and locations depicted in the film, but it doesn't actually matter, since what is the most important thing is what it feels like. But here is where problems arise.

The story is actually, and problematically, the least interesting aspect of this film. I wanted to climb past the plot points and characterizations to get to the animating spirit of the film, a tangible and mysterious quality that I could feel but couldn't touch. Even as Umi and Shun bond through a shared sense of cause and work together to save the clubhouse, other things are distracting. The colour of the sky in the deepening twilight as the pair walks home, the sweet mournfulness of a distant radio. The atmosphere is so potent, so rich and distinct that it overshadows the meagerness of the story which is really little more than a kitschy soap opera. Even the love story at the centre of things feels a bit like a form of seasonal affective disorder as spring comes stealing up and twitterpates the couple. I am dating myself here, since the word "twitterpated" dates from 1942 and the film Bambi, where it was used to describe the phenomena of love in the springtime. But unlike the rabbit and skunks who fall over backwards from the fizzy touch of love in Bambi, Umi and Shun are resolutely serious about their newfound emotional state. They approach it with an almost grim sense of duty.

Love and honour

One wishes for a few more kooky elements to elevate the action -- a talking cat, a crazy Pirate Granny or a fuzzy orange cat bus. In earlier Miyazaki films the fantastical comes strolling in the door, like it rightfully belongs. In contrast, the historical time and place that Umi and Shu inhabit ends up feeling a little dull by comparison. The story unfolds in lockstep formation, with the couple uncovering the central mystery that stands in the way of their relationship. I won't spoil the story, but it has a little something to do with the flags Umi raises every morning, a missing father and other family ties that bind. All of the film's shortcomings can be forgiven because the pining is so lovely. Yes, the great lost art of pining, a delicate thing that needs solitude and stillness. In some of the most painfully romantic moments of my life, I was entirely alone. I remember taking the Paris Metro late one evening, walking around the city in May, while the sky turned flaming purple cartwheels overhead. Even now I feel it, walking home in the evening air, with streetlight caught in the freshly-opened cherry blossoms. The world has erupted with foamy flowering everywhere I look and it is hard not to feel like a bottle of soda pop that someone has vigorously shaken, all the fizzy energy swirls around and around. It is the season for the painful joy of being alive.

Spring fever has me as well, I fear.

But for some reason while watching From up on Poppy Hill, I founds myself thinking about another film set in the spring, the newly released Harmony Korine's Spring Breakers. You probably could not find two more dissimilar narratives if you set out to, but it made me think about the distance travelled culturally between these two worlds. Spring break in some parts of the culture has become synonymous with a Bacchanal to make Caligula blanch. Indeed there is an entire filmic tradition devoted to the excesses of these particular few weeks. Harmony Korine's new film is only the most recent and the most extreme of the oeuvre. Much has been made of former-Disney child stars (Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens) being subjected to rampant pornification in Spring Breakers, but it's such a fluid transition that it makes you wonder how much had already taken place.

It also made me wonder if this loss of innocence isn't something altogether more tragic in its implications. The self-possession, honour and discipline of the characters in From up on Poppy Hill seem to belong to a vanished age in more ways than one. If innocence is as fleeting and fragile as the drift of blossoms overhead, then perhaps spring break takes on a whole new meaning.  [Tyee]

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