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December 26, 2013

Kokuriko-zaka kara

by Franz Patrick


Kokuriko-zaka kara (2011)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Ever since the death of her father during the Korean War, a sadness resides in Umi (voiced by Sarah Bolger) that she finds unable to shake off. To keep her mind off the questions and thoughts that plague her, she devotes her time balancing schoolwork and managing grandmother’s business. Her comfortable routine begins to change, however, after she meets Shun (Anton Yelchin), an energetic classmate with whom she believes to have written a poem about her in the school paper. Together, they work to save a clubhouse called the Latin Quarter, student organizations’ meeting place, from getting demolished prior to the 1964 Summer Olympics. The majority think that the building is a simply an eyesore—an embarrassment—to foreigners who will inevitably come to visit.

Since ““Kokuriko-zaka kara,” also known as “From Up on Poppy Hill,” is from Studio Ghibli and directed by Goro Miyazaki, son of the great Hayao Miyazaki, many people expect a high level of fantasy and magic to course through its veins. And since it lacks such qualities, it is unfairly labeled as a mild disappointment—completely overlooking the fact that the story’s magic lies in its realism and that animation is being used to tell a dramatic story with plenty to say about the importance being connected to one’s past but at the same time not being afraid to move forward and continue living.

We get a real sense of the simplicity and elegance of the Japanese culture’s bygone era. I enjoyed that it dares to have a plot that one might consider to be minimalistic. While plot is necessary to push its story forward, I think one of the major goals of the picture is rumination. With Umi in the middle, comparisons can be made, for instance, between her life at home and her life at school. In addition, one can observe the youth’s relationship with adults. When I think about the Japanese culture, “respect” is a word that quickly comes to mind. That word is beautifully canvassed here not just in terms of community but also in how a sensitive topic or issue is addressed.

The hand-drawn images, accompanied by sublime music, open up the material in such a way that we want to know or connect with the protagonist on a deeper level. With each day that Umi wakes up, prepares a meal for her family, attends to school, socializes with her friends, and takes care of whatever chores need to be finished before bed, we get a chance to understand what kind of person she is without the screenplay relying on a supporting character as a sounding board to her thoughts and feelings. There is almost a crippling sadness to her and she deals with it by consistently providing to others. Meanwhile, day in and day out, because she does not give enough to herself and everyone assuming that she is fine since she appears to be very happy on the outside, she is unable to move on from what pains her.

This is why one of my favorite scenes in the film—compelling from the opening credits right up to the very end—lasts about three seconds and only one line of dialogue is uttered. Walking home after buying meat at the market with a snack in hand that was given by Shun, she expresses genuine happiness to herself. (Even though she is running late to prepare dinner.) It is a small but important turning point: a simple thing like a schedule being interrupted allows her a bit of time to feel and really absorb the life she is missing.

I see a lot of movies every year but only about a dozen—maybe less in some years—are able to move me in such a way that they force me to think about how I am living, to ask questions like if I am okay, and whether I like where my life is going. It is a shame that many people prefer to see overt enchantment, especially when it comes to animated movies, rather than experiencing and striving to find the magic in the unexpected.

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