Made in Japan
This year's Reel Anime festival, a small showcase of Japanese animated features, includes a new movie from Japan's celebrated Studio Ghibli. The studio is best known in English-speaking countries for the Oscar-winning Spirited Away. But it has also had a big influence on film-makers everywhere. Weta Workshop's Sir Richard Taylor is a big fan of Ghibli's Porco Rosso, about a World War I flying ace who is turned into a pig.
The new movie, From Up on Poppy Hill, has many trademark Ghibli elements: exquisite visual detail, strong female characters, an enveloping sense of story, a narrative of transformation.
But it does not contain remarkable supernatural aspects or extraordinary flights of fancy: instead, its focus is the texture of the everyday.
It is directed by Goro Miyazaki, son of studio founder Hayao Miyazaki, from a screenplay written by his father, an adaptation of a 1980 manga - or Japanese graphic novel.
For Goro Miyazaki, there are some key differences in the adaptation that make the film "a story about how people lived between two eras", between World War II and the dramatic period of postwar economic growth.
From Up On Poppy Hill is set in the port town of Yokohama, and it takes place in 1963, as the country prepares to host the Olympics in Tokyo. A high-school girl, Umi, lives in a house overlooking the harbour. Every day, she hoists signal flags in memory of her father, who died in the Korean War.
She is drawn to one of her schoolmates, Shun, who is the editor of the school newspaper.
The pair become caught up in a conflict that is gripping the school. In the manga, the source of tension was the abolition of a compulsory uniform: here, there is more at stake about the value of the past.
The school is divided over a move to modernise: there is a plan to tear down the students' old clubhouse, a big, ramshackle, almost magically cluttered building, a dusty haven that houses an extraordinary variety of clubs and activities, eccentric objects and mysterious items.
In creating the look of this place, Goro Miyazaki says, detail was important, but the most vital thing was to capture what the clubhouse meant: "a messy yet liberated atmosphere free from everyday rules". The film itself is full of a wonderful sense of place and period detail, of streetscapes at dusk and hillsides covered in trees, of shopfronts and skylines and magazine covers.
There was plenty of reference material available, Goro Miyazaki says, to help create an authentic look.
But in the end, it's not about slavish attention to detail. Goro Miyazaki quotes his father's dictum: "Don't draw to the reference materials." He says he understands this to mean: "It isn't about re-creating what was there or making it exactly how it was. Instead, we should create something that makes the audience believe it was there, and that's how it was."
From Up On Poppy Hill is a light and graceful film, but it has its serious side, its exploration of the ways in which history, and personal history, exerts pressure on the present, its emphasis on keeping the things we value close to us.
For Goro Miyazaki, this resonates in a range of ways. "This is partly coming from my personal experience, but I believe every person carries conditions and a fate assigned to them when they are born.
"And I think the Japanese after the war were trying to live as if those pre-assigned conditions weren't there.
"But we should consider how we bear and live with the fate we inherit from the past. That is one of the challenges I personally have to face, too."
- Reel Anime is at Reading Courtenay, Wellington from today until December 9. From Up On Poppy Hill screens tomorrow at 4.30pm, Saturday at 6.30pm and Sunday, 1.15pm.
The Dominion Post