Thursday, May 16, 2013

Review in Five Bullets: From Up On Poppy Hill

In general, I don't really like cartoons.  Not sure why - as an art form, animated story-telling just doesn't speak to me much.

There are different types of cartoons, of course.  I can't sit through even forty-five seconds of an "adult" cartoon like The Simpsons or Family Guy without feeling inclined to throw a shoe at the TV and curl up in a fetal position mourning the death of Western civilization.  I do like a lot of Pixar films: the animation is clever and skillful and the stories are well-developed and often meaningful.

As for anime, I was first exposed to it in a whole series of negative contexts.  My least favorite English professor at Marquette, a self-professed deconstructionist, made us watch a well-known anime film as part of a first year honors intro to lit class.  I also had a roommate my sophomore year who watched anime on our shared TV almost ceaselessly, including at 4 in the morning when I was trying to sleep.  My dislike for it might be related to these first experiences, or it might be partly cultural - my sensibilities are pretty exclusively Western.

So, the recent Japanese animated film Up On Poppy Hill isn't something I would have anticipated seeing, let alone enjoying.  But enjoy it I did.

The story has two intertwining plot lines: one about a group of students who want to save their dilapidated but historic clubhouse from being demolished, and one about a romance that develops between two of the students against the backdrop of some complicated family history.  Both are very moving in their own right, and are woven together beautifully.

Here are five bullets, in no particular order:
  • I really ended up liking the animation itself - the backgrounds were exquisite and rich in detail and color, while the foreground figures were done in a much simpler style.  It kind of reminded me of puppets against a painted backdrop.  Like skilled puppeteers, the animators were able to convey an incredible amount of emotion and character development with simple figures.  There was an occasionally moment of cartoonish-ness, like the chorus of high school students that started weeping loudly over the possible loss of their club house, tears spouting in fountain-like jets from their eyes, or the president of the philosophy club with his gigantic head to match his larger-than-life personality. These moments seemed a little jarring and out of keeping with the overall aesthetic, but were pretty minimal.
  • The cultural and historical details of 1963 Japan were also cool - there were extended scenes just showing the central character, a young woman of high school age, going about her daily business: getting up, rolling up her sleeping mat, preparing rice and fresh fish for breakfast.  It made me kind of covetous of the clutter-free, simple and elegant functionality that seemed to be typical of a Japanese home of that period.
  • We tend to associate youthful rebellion with a throwing out of traditional values and ways of doing things.  It was interesting that in this story it was the new, post-war, pro-Western government that was looking to leave behind Japan's intellectual and historical heritage, and it was the activist students trying to retrieve and protect this heritage.
  • Despite the fact that the high school itself seemed to be co-ed, the clubhouse that formed the hub of political and intellectual life for its students was boys-only when the story opened.  The girls got involved later, but their energies were focused on getting the place cleaned up rather than participating in the student organizations that were housed there.  It was the 60s, I guess - but I sure hope things are different now. 
  • The story had a striking innocence about it, which made me realize just how rare that sort of story is in our current cultural climate.  There was no snark, no melodrama, no irony.  At one point a character quotes this from Diogenes: "Humans have complicated every simple gift of the gods."  Something to think about.

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