The latest Studio Ghibli anime has received rather grudging reviews on the whole, being described as ‘bland’ and ‘minor Ghibli’ or at best ‘pleasant and light’. I enjoyed it a great deal but I can understand why the less enthusiastic responses have come from some fans and critics. But I should also point out that this was the biggest-grossing Japanese film of 2011, so plenty of fans did like it.
Based on a shojo manga (i.e. a girl’s comic book story), the film has a screenplay by the studio head Miyazaki Hayao and Niwa Keiko. It is directed by Miyazaki Gori, Hayao’s son, whose 2006 anime Tales of Earthsea was generally panned. This time he seems to have had a smoother ride with critics prepared to delay judgement after a film that works – “not amazing” but “simple and cute” as fans have described it. I’ll try to explain why I think it is more than that.
The most obvious category/genre of the narrative is ‘teen high-school romance’. But it is also a ‘period film’ set very precisely in the port city of Yokohama in 1963, a year before the Tokyo Olympics when Japan is poised to ‘leap forward’ in terms of its modernising economy and society. The students in the last two years of high school were born in 1945-6 and they have lived through the painful and difficult period of Occupation and ‘recovery’. The central character Umi has a busy life running her grandmother’s house and catering for lodgers and her two younger siblings, having lost her father, the captain of a supply ship which sank during the Korean War. Her mother is an academic working for a spell in America. Every day Umi shops and makes food before and after school. She also runs up signal flags outside the house in memory of her father. One day she meets Shun, a senior at school who is the editor of a school newspaper. The potential romance develops (with the approval of the older women in Umi’s household) but an unforeseen obstacle lies in the way – a plot development that might surprise some viewers (and which one character refers to in terms of ‘cheap melodrama’). However, the teen romance also involves that classic high school element – saving something valuable which the school authorities want to close down. The boys occupy a rambling old house that offers accommodation for various clubs and societies, including the newspaper ‘offices’. Given the title ‘the Latin Quartier’ the building represents an old, but culturally important aspect of the school community but there are plans to sweep it away to make way for a modern building.
The ‘problem’ for fans is that this film is a change from the fantasy films usually associated with Studio Ghibli, although there were a couple of such films in the 1990s, rarely seen in the West and, most famously, Grave of the Fireflies in 1988. Miyazaki Gori’s direction is also perhaps a little prosaic but I’m not sure that this matters since I found the story to be strong. There are several themes and set pieces which bring Miyazaki Senior’s work to mind. So we see the focus on preparing meals (and shopping) and the sequence in which Umi organises the girls in the school to clean and renovate the Latin Quartier in order to impress the school administrators is reminiscent of both the cleaning of the country house in My Neighbour Totoro and the many sequences featuring the great bath-house in Spirited Away. Like these two buildings, the Latin Quartier house (built probably in the Meiji period in the 19th century) is a symbol of a Japanese tradition that needs to be preserved. This aspect of the story is potentially problematic in the context of the school.
The Japanese convention/tradition of dressing students in identical uniforms with military connotations does mean that a lively student debate can sometimes feel like a fascist rally with uniformed ranks chanting in unison. But in fact, this is all about collective action and collaboration. There is no sense that the students want to persecute others or make themselves more important. And it isn’t sexist either. In Studio Ghibli films young women are active agents. Umi has to run a household without adult males. She knows how to get things done – although she initiates the cleaning, the boys also contribute.
Watching the film, I found myself thinking about classical Japanese cinema from the 1950s and links kept popping up – the train journey into Tokyo was reminiscent of Ozu, the house on the hill and the city below form the basis of Kurosawa’s (very different) story in High and Low, also set in Yokohama. Both Ozu and Kurosawa made ‘youth pictures’ celebrating the vitality of young people. I think I’ve read that Miyazaki Hayao was a big fan of these films. I also wonder about the naming of the ‘Latin Quartier’ – is this a nod towards the Japanese New Wave cinema in the 1960s or, more likely, a reference back to the importance of European culture in the mix of Japanese education practices in the early 20th century? Most of these references won’t mean much to contemporary audiences but they point towards the care with which the best Studio Ghibli films are constructed. Contemporary Japanese politics seem to be swinging right and there are worrying signs about a revival in interest in the militarism of the 1930s and the disavowal of the post-1945 ‘reconstruction’ of Japanese identity. I hope that the investigation of tradition and heritage in Studio Ghibli films acts as a counterweight to those swings.
Here’s a very short Japanese trailer for the film. I watched the subtitled version of the film. In the UK specialised cinemas tend to show the American dubbed version in matinees and the Japanese version in the evenings. The trailer features one of the songs and I loved the music in the film which features choral singing (from the students) alongside contemporary Japanese popular songs. I’m used to Joe Hisaishi but the music in Poppy is by Takebe Satoshi.
Finally, here’s one of the most useful reviews of the film by Andrew Osmond (who also reviews the film in Sight and Sound, August)