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From up on Poppy Hill

Friday 2nd August 2013

Andrew Osmond on the newest UK release for Ghibli

From Up on Poppy Hill, released in British cinemas today, is a Ghibli father-and-son affair. The story was co-scripted by the esteemed Hayao Miyazaki, based on a girls’ manga he analysed 22 years ago, in an article called “My Shojo Manga Experience.” It’s directed by his son Goro, and is rather different from what either Miyazaki has made before. Poppy Hill is a period drama, set in a Japan a half-century past. According to an L.A. Times article, Goro thinks his father used Poppy Hill as an experiment for his own next film; more on that later.

Poppy Hill is set in 1963, in a Japan between the devastation of war and the hope of a new start for the country. It’s set just before the 1964 Tokyo Olympics – you see the Olympic logo throughout the film – which became a symbol of national rebirth in Japan. The same symbolism is used more ironically in Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira, where a new universe is born in an Olympic stadium. Poppy Hill has familiar anime subjects – the strength and spirit of the young, lovers faced with an impossible barrier. It also revolves round a lost father; we’ve discussed what that might mean elsewhere. It’s being shown dubbed and subbed; the dub is good-to-excellent, with a great turn from Ron Howard (that Ron Howard!) as an outsized philosophy geek.

From up on Poppy HillBut here’s the surprise; Poppy Hill has no fantasy. There are no flying castles, no wizards, Totoro or fish girls. Not even a talking cat. This is Ghibli, if not without magic, then without supernatural magic. Anyone looking for a Miyazaki-style epic fantasy is out of luck, though the Ghibli-animated Ni no Kuni is consolation for gamers.

Readers of this blog will find a non-fantasy Ghibli film less of a shock than general audiences, especially if you’ve seen ‘films like Whisper of the Heart, Only Yesterday and Ocean Waves, all magic-less. All three are shown over the next week on Film4, starting with Ocean Waves today at 11 a.m. However, Only Yesterday and Ocean Waves are still awaiting a home release in America, which suggests someone is worried they’d be a hard sell to Westerners.

Yet the cinema release of the non-fantasy Poppy Hill hints that mainstream attitudes are changing. In recent years, we’ve had excellent real-world dramas in animation: Persepolis from France, the Edinburgh-made The Illusionist, Spain’s Chico and Rita. Poppy Hill has points in common with all three, especially The Illusionist. Both express a love of the past, a celebration of cities in bygone decades, and a defence of old, ‘outmoded’ culture being pushed aside by the new.

Poppy Hill is set in Yokohama, a port city near Tokyo. The main character is Umi, an industrious, serious-minded girl. She lives in her grandmother’s hilltop house with her younger siblings and the house staff, while her mother’s abroad. Each morning, Umi raises flags to greet the ships in the bay below. She’s really doing it in memory of her sailor dad, who died in the Korean war (1950-3), when she was little.

At school, she has a farcical encounter with Shun, a boy involved in a campaign to save their school’s crumbling clubhouse. This is one of Ghibli’s mazelike, multi-storeyed edifices, a living, working community of the kind Miyazaki loves. It’s especially reminiscent of Tokyo’s real Ghibli museum, strewn with papers and bric-a-brac. The boys have turned it into a treehouse-cum-den of different clubs – philosophers, astronomers, archaeologists and so on – and they’re not ready to let it go.

From up on Poppy HillDespite their bumpy start, Umi realises she likes Shun (it’s strongly hinted he has liked her for much longer). Shun’s zeal inspires Umi to join the clubhouse campaign, and they set about renovating the building, helped by a troupe of mop-wielding schoolgirls. And then… there are complications, involving the turbulent postwar past. The youngsters find themselves in the position of trying to save history (the clubhouse), even while they’re frustrated by it. They must deal with inner conflicts, and act in public as adults, in order to be heard by an establishment that sees them as kids.

This theme, coupled with the 1960s setting, has a special resonance in Japan. At that time, the relationship between Japan and the nation that beat it, America, was still being thrashed out. Many young Japanese didn’t like the way this was going. In the spring of 1960, there were massive demonstrations against a Security Pact between Japan and America. That May, student riots led to hundreds of injuries, and the death of a female student.

According to the translated Starting Point, a collection of Hayao Miyazaki’s writings, Miyazaki was a bystander and witness to these demos, but didn’t take part. He did march in demos a few years later, calling for animators’ rights at the Toei studio, but the greater battle had passed him by. This has an interesting echo in Poppy Hill. In one scene, an amazed Umi witnesses a brawling debate between the male students, full of pushing and shoving. We see Umi awed by Shun’s passion before the mob. It’s a comic, cartoony scene, but it suggests something far weightier.

The film critic Aaron Gerow accused Poppy Hill of sterilising Japan’s history by omitting any reference to America, whose presence in Yokohama was overbearing in 1963. On the other hand, Ghibli films usually prefer to allegorise their politics: the ‘beast fable’ political activism in Pom Poko, or the images of national occupation in Nausicaa.

As for Poppy Hill, consider the very catchy period song that plays twice in the film, during pivotal moments for Umi and Shun. You can hear the song here, with translated lyrics. A huge international hit, it’s called “Ue no Mita” in Japanese, but is known as “Sukiyaki” in the West. The Japanese performer was Kyu Sakamoto; the song was covered by the likes of Kenny Ball and His Jazzmen and A Taste of Honey. Intriguingly, the original writer, Rokusuke Ei, was himself a political protester. Moreover, the song was inspired by his frustrations at the failed protests against the Japan-American Security Treaty.

A hidden message in Poppy Hill? Well, maybe. To most people, “Sukiyaki” just plays as a love song, and a very nostalgic one. Ghibli has form in playing the nostalgia card shamelessly, in Totoro, Spirited Away or Only Yesterday. Beyond Ghibli, the enormously popular Always; Sunset on Third Street is a live-action Japanese film trilogy about postwar Tokyo. Not forgetting the splendid period TV anime Kids on the Slope, which viewers may find more cinematic than Poppy Hill.

And then there’s Kaze Tachinu. By coincidence, Ghibli’s film comes out in Britain two weeks after this new Ghibli film, directed by Hayao Miyazaki, in Japan. Kaze Tachinu (The Wind is Rising) is another non-fantasy history drama, based on a true story. The trailer looks very cinematic, in David Lean vein. The voice at the start belongs to Hideaki Anno, creator of Evangelion.

Kaze Tachinu covers decades of Japanese history; the trailer shows the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake. The film is controversial because of its protagonist, Jiro Horikoshi. A real person, he made fighter planes that went on to cause carnage through Asia and at Pearl Harbour. Miyazaki argues the man should be separated from the consequences of his work. Quoted in the Wall Street Journal, Miyazaki said, “(Horikoshi) made high-tech destroyers, but really all he desired was to make exquisite planes.”

And yet Miyazaki, beloved as a creator of exquisite art, has now turned political pundit! In recent days, he’s made outspoken, deeply controversial comments about inflammatory topics, including Japan’s present-day constitution and its past war-crimes. He’s especially scathing about politicians’ own knowledge of the past. “I am taken aback by the lack of knowledge among government and political party leaders on historical facts.”

Watching Poppy Hill in the light of these headlines, one wonders. Is Miyazaki tired of playing the part of Umi, the girl standing awed before an alpha-male orator? Is he instead playing Shun, who leaps heroically to centre-stage? If so, there’s a problem – Miyazaki is no teenage student! He’s a septuagenarian, whom Japanese critics can call a rougai, a foolish oldster who’s outstayed his time. Except there are few Japanese people of any age as famous as Miyazaki – and perhaps none with his pop-culture presence among young and old.

Poppy Hill insists the past will not be forgotten. In Miyazaki’s animation, oldsters magically shrug off the years. Can he perform the same trick on himself with his art?

From Up on Poppy Hill is out today in selected UK cinemas.


Akira (the Collector\'s Edition) Triple Play Edition (incl. Blu-ray, Dvd, Digital Copy)

was £29.99
Iconic and game-changing, Akira is the definitive anime masterpiece! Katsuhiro Otomo’s landmark cyberpunk classic obliterated the boundaries of Japanese animation and forced the world to look into the future. Akira’s arrival shattered traditional thinking, creating space for movies like The Matrix to be dreamed into brutal reality.

Neo-Tokyo, 2019. The city is being rebuilt post World War III when two high school drop outs, Kaneda and Tetsuo stumble across a secret government project to develop a new weapon - telekinetic humans. After Tetsuo is captured by the military and experimented on, he gains psychic abilities and learns about the existence of the project's most powerful subject, Akira. Both dangerous and destructive, Kaneda must take it upon himself to stop both Tetsuo and Akira before things get out of control and the city is destroyed once again. 
AKIRA The Collector’s Edition features both the original 1988 Streamline English dub and the 2001

Pioneer/Animaze English dub!



Katsuhiro Otomo's Akira then and now

Helen McCarthy examines Katsuhiro Otomo’s landmark Akira, then and now
1988 in Japan: Yamaha Motors won the J-League but Nissan won the Cup. Western pop divas Bananarama, Kylie and Tiffany were on TV. Japanese real estate values climbed so high that the Imperial Palace garden was worth more than the State of California, and Tokyo’s Chiyoda ward had a higher market value than Canada. The Government signed the FIRST Basel Accord, triggering a crash that wiped out half Japan’s stock market. Katsuhiro Omoto’s movie Akira premiered on 16th July.

Akira's Ancestors

Andrew Osmond on the unexpected forerunners of Neo-Tokyo
In Akira’s opening moments, a sphere of white light appears from nowhere in the centre of Tokyo, and swells to obliterate the city. Many Western critics saw the image as a symbol of the Bomb, like the earlier Japanese pop-culture icon, Godzilla. But the designer apocalypse could be taken as Akira’s own mission statement – to be a new kind of entertainment, blowing away its peers and reshaping the cinema landscape.

The Impact of Akira

Andrew Osmond reviews the reviews from 20 years ago.
On its explosive arrival in the West, Akira crossed the Pacific to catch the generation that grew up on the films of Spielberg and Lucas; it was also the generation that read adult superhero strips such as Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns. Akira, though, offered the shock-and-awe widescreen violence akin to that of enfant terrible live-action director, Paul Verhoeven. For example, both Akira and Verhoeven’s Robocop (1987) have a gory money-shot scene in their early minutes, in which a luckless bit-part player is graphically torn apart by a hail of bullets. Unsurprisingly, such imagery excited reviewers.

Akira 25th Anniversary Screenings

Your chance to see it in the cinema in the UK
Neo-Tokyo is about to E.X.P.L.O.D.E. Katsuhiro Otomo’s debut animated feature AKIRA had its Japanese premiere on 16th July 1988. We are very proud to celebrate the 25th Anniversary of what is undoubtedly, one of the most celebrated animated movies of all time. Voted by Empire readers as one of the top 100 best films ever and cited by everyone from James Cameron, Ridley Scott, Daft Punk and Kanye West as a massive influence on their work, AKIRA kick-started the anime business all over the world, opening the doors for everything from Pokémon to Princess Mononoke.

The Art of Akira

Joe Peacock tracks down the original images from the anime classic
Watching Akira for the first time provokes a universal reaction of awe. And justifiably so: there’s often an overwhelming sense among audiences that this animated film is unlike any other they’ve ever seen. Casual viewers won’t be able to put their finger on it; they just know that Akira is visually striking. Art and illustration aficionados appreciate the intricacy of individual scenes, sometimes pausing the film to appreciate the detail in a particular frame.

Katsuhiro Otomo's Akira then and now

Helen McCarthy examines Katsuhiro Otomo’s landmark Akira, then and now
1988 in Japan: Yamaha Motors won the J-League but Nissan won the Cup. Western pop divas Bananarama, Kylie and Tiffany were on TV. Japanese real estate values climbed so high that the Imperial Palace garden was worth more than the State of California, and Tokyo’s Chiyoda ward had a higher market value than Canada. The Government signed the FIRST Basel Accord, triggering a crash that wiped out half Japan’s stock market. Katsuhiro Omoto’s movie Akira premiered on 16th July.


Naruto Cosplay: Double Hatake

Paul Jacques continues to round up the best cosplay...
Anna Mateus and Karol Slomczynski snuggle up as two Kakashi Hatakes from Naruto, because one wasn't trouble enough. Snapped by our roving cameraman Paul Jacques at the London Super Comic Con.

Bandai Museum, Tokyo

Rayna Denison checks out Bandai’s toy museum
In the dark days between the closure of the first Bandai-Gundam Museum in 2006 and the proliferation of Gundam cafes across Japan’s capital over the past few years, a small glimmer of mecha-shaped light remained for anime fans near Japan’s capital: the Bandai Museum in Mibu, Tochigi Precture. This new “Omocha-no-machi” Bandai Museum opened in 2007, following the demise of the original museum in Chiba, offering a huge collection of toys from the Edo-period to the present day.

Kite: the Movie

A live-action remake of the anime classic
Right, hands up those of you who have been betting on which 1990s anime would get a Western live-action remake first. Ok, who had Ghost in the Shell? Evangelion? Cowboy Bebop? But Yasuomi Umetsu’s notorious sexed-up actioner Kite (1998) has beaten them all to the screen, starring anime fan Samuel L. Jackson.
Valentine’s Day is just round the corner and whether you’re spending it alone or with that special someone, we’ve got a selection of titles perfect for the occasion.


Andrew Osmond on an anime with a distinctive look
Boy meets girl; boy and girl hate each other; boy and girl learn they’re both children of gangster families and must pretend to be lovers to prevent gang war. Naturally there are rival suitors on both sides of the fractious pair, ranging from a sweet girl-next-door type to a pistol-packing assassin.

Gargantia on the Verdurous Planet

Culture shocks and military musings, in Gen Urobuchi's hard-hitting anime
"It’s an interesting time to have a hero with a militarist outlook. This blog has discussed the arguments over the alleged political content in the blockbusting Attack on Titan and Ghibli’s film The Wind Rises. In both cases, the controversies connects to Japan’s own militarist past in the 1930s and ‘40s, and the spectres they conjure up in countries round the world; of Japanese kamikaze pilots, of torturers ruling POW camps, of the so-called “banzai charges” of soldiers sworn to die for their Emperor."
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