22/02/2018

From Up On Poppy Hill - Genre vs. Story

Thoughts On: From Up On Poppy Hill (コクリコ坂から, 2011)


Two students, both of which have lost a parent, fall for one another during a student uprising.


Gorō Miyazaki makes his return to Ghibli with From Up On Poppy Hill, but, this time, with his father working on the script with co-writer of Tales From Earthsea and Arriety, Keiko Niwa. The outcome of Gorō's second effort is, unfortunately, almost as polarising as Tales From Earthsea - but, in a different way. Whilst the character-work and dialogue in Tales From Earthsea is quite poor, leaving a story with potential left unfulfilled, the character-work is quite strong in From Up On Poppy Hill, but the story is the problem.

There are minor and nagging faults within From Up On Poppy Hill pertaining to the sound track and tone in general. Starting off on a bad foot, Poppy Hill uses music that simply does not speak well with the imagery. During the introduction, for example, the song is too cheerful and energetic for the imagery, which is attempting to be far more subdued and quiet in its study of our main character, Umi. And such remains a grating motif of the entire film; the animators - who aren't on their best form - are seemingly attempting to tell a story quite different to that which the editor, director and sound people are. Added to this, however, is a naively obnoxious tone, the kind that can only be summed up as such: ugh...

Any time a story attempts to deal with teenagers and romance, it will be trying to skate a line between mushy, sentimental melodrama and contrived, arrogant drama. In not only containing a teen-romance, but also politics and a touch of existentialism, Poppy Hill adds other, complexifying dimensions to this tight rope walk. And it certainly doesn't walk the thin line well. Sometimes pushing too far into melodrama, and too often spending time with, to put it straight, stupid, annoying kids, a tonal sweet spot is never hit in Poppy Hill. Looking to the majority of Ghibli's filmography you will find that tone is so masterfully established and sustained that it need not be mentioned. Here, off and changing tones make it very difficult to appreciate the story and characters. And let it be emphasised that Umi is a pretty wonderful character. It is the minor characters, or rather, the role that groups of school kids collectively play, that becomes annoying.

This seems to be the paradigm of faults within this film; something beautiful is established - a setting, characters and a relationship - but soon spoiled because there is no real direction or strong tone given to the story.

Leading on to the primary problem with Poppy Hill, we have to discuss story. The major emotional conflict of this narrative is two kids falling in love and then finding out that they may be siblings. This immediately struck me as questionable, but I gave the film a chance, thinking that the two would realise that they were in search of a brother and sister all along and develop a relationship around that. The opposite occurs. The film seemingly wants us to root for the two young kids to not be siblings so that they could get together. I cannot see the moral point in this. Maybe this isn't amoral, but, it is certainly weird - especially as it is presented to us.

It is quite easy to imagine a comedy based around a guy and a girl falling for one another and then finding out that they're related in some way. It is also quite easy to think of a tragedy in which fate has two unknown family members fall in love - and maybe worse. Oedipus Rex is the archetypal example here. However, a melodramatic teen-romance based around the possibility of incest is, certainly for me, hard to swallow. I doubt I am alone in thinking this. It simply seems that Poppy Hill is trying to integrate the more ridiculous, though very common, elements of anime (more specifically, hentai and other pornographic sub-genres) into itself with the play on incest.

Beyond the ethical questions, the real issue here is not just that the genre and tone of the story don't resonate with this theme of incest, but that the general narrative doesn't justify its existence. From Up On Poppy Hill is, in essence, a film about aligning oneself with cultural, familial and individual history. What one earth does potential incest have to do with this?

Jung, when describing the stages of life, suggests that a significant step in growing up is moving into a dualistic stage, one that follows childhood and early adult hood, and is managed through recognising a set of 'also Is'. In recognising that you are both a screwed up child and the adult who rebelled against and quashed that person, you can confront your Shadow - that screwed up little child that, despite your efforts, is still within you. In recognising that you are both a present you and a past you, you can become a new you one that is better suited to face life. This new you can accept and deal with itself as both faulted and fixed; as a good child turned messed up adult, or a messed up child turned good adult, for example. Such is so important as you will come to terms with your own weaknesses and strengths. This gives you the ability to stay clear of the dark you and close to the better you. Recognising potential and limitation with yourself can be thought of as aligning yourself with the many dualities of life; the good, the bad, the up, the down, the wrong the right. Like so much of Jung's psychology/philosophy, this theory is then based around dualism being an inherent factor of life that must be accepted and managed as one whole.

We shall not dwell on Jung as we have been referencing him quite a lot recently. However, we can take this concept of 'also I' and map it onto Poppy Hill. Not only is this a film, like a vast many other films, about generational gaps, but this is also about a gap between childhood and adulthood. We can understand the generational gap just like we can understand the gap between childhood and adulthood. To become an adult, you have to not just change who you are, but come to terms with your 'inner child' (an idea that has its origins in Jung, but was popularised by Hugh Missildine). For a society to progress, it cannot destroy what the previous generation built and start again. Ruins are never a good foundation to build from. This is seemingly so because the past is something that can never be eradicated. It can be masked over and ignored, but, from the darkness, are sure to emerge some demons that you have blinded yourself to. Societies, too, must realise their 'also Is' so that they can not just learn from the mistakes of the past, but also inherit the good (which is all too easy to take for granted).

These ideas of the individual and the societal 'also I' are attempted to be presented by Poppy Hill with multiple illusions to the Korean War and Japan's overlooked involvement in it that saw an undisclosed numbers of Japanese sailors and labourers (not soldiers) killed. This involvement in the war had much to do with the American government in the aftermath of WWII, and, in addition to this, there is a general allusion to Japan's relationship with other countries through the Olympics. These allusions could be a means of critique, but, the social-historical context of this film does not seem to have been integrated into the story at all well. We are then left questioning the purpose of referencing the Olympics and Korean War. And this is true in regards to the reference to student protests, too. Whilst uprisings are presented as, on one level, bringing society together, this event also brings together two young kids who are given the opportunity to reconcile with the loss of their parents. There is a clear attempt here to say something about the Jungian 'also I' stage of development for individuals and collectives, but, I can't see this going anywhere. And, I repeat, what on earth does potential incest have to do with any of this?

The core problem with Poppy Hill is concerned with the building of a narrative without clear meaning and direction. If a film is going to consciously try and say something specific, themes cannot merely be alluded to, and genre must not be allowed to become the primary motivation for the story. If we consider something such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, we have a perfect example of a film that is, of course, science fiction, but doesn't feel very sci-fi. This is true of many art-house or non-mainstream films. They don't seem to have a proper genre. Why? Because, in these films, the style of storytelling matters less than what a story says. With films such as Rust & Bone or Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri, we have a seeming character studies that actually don't have very obvious character arcs of journeys; we lose sight of the characters slightly. Why? Because characters are used as receptacles for meaning and voices for subtext. In films that are simply 'their own thing', story is often everything. And story can be everything only when it has direction and is given meaning.

In a film such as Princess Mononoke, there are distinct characters, and there is a distinct form/style, but the film is held together by its meaning - by the direction of story. Here we have an example of a film that doesn't think story is absolutely everything, but nonetheless puts it highest on the hierarchy. Poppy Hill should have followed in Princess Mononoke's footsteps if it was to try and be, in part, a genre film - and this, in my opinion, means getting rid of the pointless incest element and focusing on the 'also I' theme. In realised that romantic tropes aren't everything, and that the set of characters constructed are strong enough to carry the film alone, the writers should have focused on what the story itself could say rather than trying to inject conflict and resolution into character arcs. In focusing on character conflict, genre was turned to, and thus we have a romance cliche - realising that the person that you have fallen in love with isn't actually the person you thought they were - manipulated into absurdity through the whole subplot of potential incest.

In Poppy Hill, genre has clashed with story and the writers have chosen to let genre win. A terrible blunder that leads to an awkward and rather insubstantial film. I knew that the Ghibli Series would certainly look at the good, the bad and the ugly from the company, but I didn't foresee this much ugliness finding itself in the series. Alas, what are your thoughts on From Up On Poppy Hill and all we've covered today?

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