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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Letter From An Unknown Woman - Anima Possession

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Letter From An Unknown Woman - Anima Possession

Thoughts On: Letter From An Unknown Woman (1948)

A young girl falls hopelessly for a talented pianist who does not know a thing about her.

Letter From An Unknown Woman is, stylistically, a truly beautiful classical Hollywood film. The black and white cinematography, the sweeping camera movement, the intimate mise en scène - all wonderfully executed. Fontaine has a particularly striking screen presence in this picture. Her body language is so often subdued and meek, yet, her voice rings with a true, untrembling strength. So, though she becomes, in essence, a flower that is stepped on, it is made sure that we do not perceive her as merely weak and pathetic. Such leaves Letter From An Unknown Woman, arguably, a solid example of how to allow tragedy to flow through a story, instead of pressing it upon characters and moulding them around it. Feeling the hands of the makers within this genre is a signifier of incompetence. Call it fate, destiny or something else, but it is this that should fuel the tragedy. When a character is to blame, we have a hero/villain narrative. When there is no one we can easily point to, we have a tragedy. When we can point to the writer and say it is they who caused the tragedy, we have a deeply faulted film.

Whilst I think Letter From An Unknown Woman does overcome this hurdle in formulating a tragedy, it is difficult to commit to an opinion due to one crucial sequence. The dramatic hinge of this narrative is our main character finding the love of his life, spending a night with her, and then forgetting all about her in a tidy of sum of fourteen days - or less. And he does not just spend a night with her, he spends a night with her, meaning, CUT TO: 9 Months Later.

This is a rather ridiculously melodramatic plot point to centre an entire narrative on. You can see it approaching, and you assume that tragedy may intervene. If not, maybe mere circumstance would intervene as it does in between Linklater's Before Sunrise and Before Sunset. The two lovers who meet and spend a night with one another in these films know that they only have one night and that's all. At the last minute, however, they make an agreement to never call one another, to never send a letter, instead, just meet up a few months later. As we find out in the sequel, this meeting never happens. Though each person assumes the other just forgot about them, it turns out that one person's grandmother died and the other actually did show up. This sounds like a convenient writer's device, but, the way in which this information is integrated into the narrative is smooth and believable. Letter From An Unknown Woman shares a similar plot point, but, there is no explanation, no circumstance, no tragedy, no verisimilitude, no smoothness.

This major beat has you question the entirety of the narrative as, without reason, it becomes clear that the man who just forgets the potential love of his life is a pure dickhead. We have been made to believe the complete opposite, however, and so has the girl. But, the forgetful pianist who erased the girl from his memory is never presented as the asshole he clearly is, not before, and not after this event. Not really. Not convincingly. Why? Do the writer's agree with what he did? Can they overlook it so easily? Does it not matter?

These questions make one thing clear, yet leave two pathways open to the viewer. The one thing that becomes clear is that this film is attached to the idea of 'anima possession'. The two pathways that this concept opens up are tied to the audience viewing the featuring of anima possession as conscious or inadvertent.

Anima possession is a concept of Carl Jung's that was expanded upon and rethought by many after him, one prominent figure being Marie Louise von Franz. The anima is, in the simplest terms, the female element within every single man. The concept reaches further than this, however, to suggest that the anima is the female archetype in the male psyche. This archetype is, from one perspective, inherent to the self. From another perspective, the anima is created and moulded by the self; it is a man's conception of the ideal female. This ideal female can be informed by a man's mother, a distinctly Freudian touch of Jung's theory, and so, just like Freud's conception of the mother-son relationship, it can have some seriously negative outcomes.

To combine both Freudian and Jungian terminology, anima possession is the idealisation of the archetypal Oedipal mother. To separate Jung from Freud, however, anima possession doesn't have to be a psychosexual phenomena. Instead, anima possession can be temperamental; it can turn a man into a wimp.

Anima possession weakening a man does not suggest - at least, not entirely - that a man embracing his femininity makes him a frail princess. Anima possession isn't a concept meant to degrade femininity and women. It is the corruption and the building of a false female archetype that weakens a man. It is thus his inability to individuate (grow up) and see a woman as a woman, a human being, that reduces him to a spineless mouse. This mouse projects his animus onto the world, seeing all women through Eros, the Greek god of sexual attraction that Jung uses to encapsulate the essence of femininity as a great binder and loosener. With all painted by Eros, the man becomes deeply and more profoundly anal retentive** than Freud's language and conception would suggest. He wants the whole world around himself to be in balance and in (his) control, all ends attracted and met. The world is plugged in to the matrix of his pathetic ego.

**This is where Freud's language becomes polarising and, admittedly, quite strange. Anal retentive describes the outcomes of a child between 18 months and 3-years-old becoming fixated by their anus as the primary erogenous zone of their body. If they then enjoy holding in their poop or pee, they're going to be obsessively clean and respectful of authority. And the blame, of course, lands on the parents.

Without delving much deeper into this subject matter, if we turn back to the concept of tragedy, we can begin exploring our two paths. If we interpret the major plot point of Letter from An Unknown Woman as bad writing that signifies that the writers are pressing tragedy onto characters, then we can argue that they, themselves, are, to some degree, anima possessed. As said, anima possession is often characterised by temperament: a man being indecisive, but also impulsive, brutish, but also childish, and all at the worst of times. However, we can consider the concept manifesting in terms of just projection: a man thinking of and representing females, and their own persona, through the corrupt scope of anima possesion. We may imagine such a phenomena looking like Letter From A Unknown Woman.

Herein, a young woman is shown to be obsessed with a man - unbeknownst to him. She adores him for who he is, for the music he makes and with no real reason to point to beyond the idea of true love. She is also quiet, sacrificial, kind and so likeable that she is almost infallible to criticism. Meanwhile, he is conservative and somewhat quiet - he lets his piano do the talking. However, once the music has made its calls, he has no qualms about accepting the other young girls that come his way and no qualms about talking them into his piano room. We can suppose that he's just got magnetism in that way.

This man one day finds the muse he's always been looking for, and she is swept away upon a cloud of dreams. She is getting what she has so long yearned for, and what we, the audience, thinks she deserves. However, whilst she turns out to have truly been in love, he turns out to have just wanted her for a night. Years pass, and she does not stop being sacrificial. As much as she tells herself she is happy, her sacrificial nature eats away at her. And eating away at the man, too, is the muse shaped hole in his heart. His piano no longer does the talking, though, the search for a new muse continues.

We can stop the narrative here and very clearly see that the writers seem to be telling a tale of a perfect woman and an imperfect man; a woman that remains perfect and a man who remains a knob. In the end, she dies, and hearing of her tragic life, he decides to confront death, too. We're then sure that he dies--if he dies at all--a great man when he is called into a duel. The tale of Judas and Juliette with a slight twist in the end and some hope for Judas.

Some would suggest that this satisfies the male gaze - which, as the story is presented, certainly does. However, it is also a projection of animus possession; the writers being uncontrollably obsessed with the perfect female that they desire and the broken man they can't stop being, yet still finding a way towards self-gratification and, whilst they're at it, taking a fatal dig at women.

There's a part of me that doesn't like this story, and this is the reason why. It feels simultaneously weak and brutish, unenlightened and obnoxious. There is another part of me, however, that is willing to accommodate this film and its story. Before we go on to to explore this second avenue, however, let it be noted that the fact that I am unsure certainly decreases the quality of this narrative. Nonetheless, let us continue.

If anima possession is a feature of the male character of this film, and not the writers, and if this is a genuine tragedy, we can suggest that the pianist is certainly to be seen as the villain of this story--a tragic villain. Having been given talent and magnetism, never having learnt how to properly control his impulses, never having asked for fame and fortune, and never having asked for a young girl to fall in love with him, we can see the young pianist as in over his head. So, though he is anima possessed and in constant search of a muse, it seems that this is a cross he has just got to carry.

It may be because of this cross, the fact that he was swept away to work, put under stress, constantly approached by other women and some other (admittedly weak) excuses, that he may have forgotten about the girl. After all, whilst she had a wonderful night, he got to know nothing of the girl despite all his questions; he was only allowed to, quite literally, stare at her. How was he to remember her by anything other than sight? And maybe her memories of their night together - those which we are shown - do not match reality. We cannot know, but this would certainly paint a different picture of him.

So, though his neglect makes for a foolish and rather pig-headed mistake, he is young and she never tries to reach out to him. Is this her sacrificial nature and hesitance taking the better of her; has she not learnt to strengthen herself and take up arms? We certainly can't blame her entirely, but, maybe the fault lies somewhere between them?

The man didn't ask for his predicament, nor did she. Both are faulted individuals, and fate seems to have torn them apart. In being torn apart, their faults intensify; she becomes more sacrificial and he more of an exploitative fool. However, in meeting again, they each find a chance for redemption. She finds a chance to stop sacrificing her own will towards fulfilment. She decides to try and confront, to take, the man who she - for reasons out of her control - has loved her whole life. Memory fails the man, however. Though he tries, he cannot remember her, and thus he is not given the jump start towards redemption. Their clocks of fate are out of sync. This demoralises the woman, leaving her to the arms of tragic chaos. She dies. Upon realising who she was and what his mistake was too late, he comes upon his chance for redemption; to confront his mistakes and the one man who was actually good to the girl despite not being the man of her dreams. He drops his anima possession, his muse has died a human, and he shall confront death as the weak and terrible man that he is. Will he even bother to fend off his doom?

Seen as such, Letter From n Unknown Woman is a tragedy about anima possession. However, there remains doubt in my mind. I lean more towards seeing this film in a favourable light (my bias towards wanting to see and appreciate the best in cinema), but I certainly see much potential for criticism. I'll then leave things open. Have you seen Letter From An Unknown Woman? Is this a good or a bad film, and why?

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Allah Tantou - The Exploited

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From Up On Poppy Hill - Genre vs. Story

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Allah Tantou - The Exploited

Quick Thoughts: Allah Tantou (God's Will, 1992)

Made by David Marof, this is the Guinean film of the series.

Allah Tantou, or God's Will, is a documentary centred around the reconstruction of Achkar Marof's, Guinea's UN Representative from 1964 to 1968, imprisonment. Made by his son, David Marof, with letters from his father, sent while he was in prison, this bears weight as we grow to come to terms with the fact that this is a true story. I do not believe that the manner in which reconstruction is managed and brought to the screen was the best decision for this film, however. Instead of feeling that you are witnessing reality, you have to remind yourself of this consistently. Without a real human presence, rather the presence of actors, letters and newsreels, it is difficult to emotional engage with the film in a manner that does not feel at surface level. It is always difficult to tell the stories of the lost. The Act Of Killing masterfully manages these difficulties, but, such a film is a rarity and one that, whilst I would like to have seen Allah Tantou reflect, was not brought to the screen by Marof.

Allah Tantou is nonetheless an important film for Guinea, African cinema and Africa more generally. This is because it was one of the first African films to directly and convincingly confront Human Rights abuses. There are many African films such as The Rise and Fall of Idi Amin, Black and White In Colour and Xala that all deal with corruption and Human Rights abuses that predate Allah Tantou. These narrative films are very different; The Rise and Fall Of Idi Amin is considered an exploitation film that, with an abundance of absurdity and comedy, deals with African dictatorship; Black and White In Colour is a French-Ivorian (emphasis on the French) film that deals with war and colonialism through satire; Xala deals with state corruption in post-colonial Africa with hints of political satire embedded within drama. Whilst these films and Allah Tantou have similar subject matter - exploitation - the manner in which exploitation is handled by each film is radically different. Allah Tantou attempts to deal with real life, without many illusions or much fiction. Whilst its success in these terms can be debated, its distance from something such as The Rise and Fall Of Idi Amin cannot. The importance of Allah Tantou then lies in its directness, serious approach and attempts to humanise and impressionistically empathise with the presented figures. Such is not really achieved, in my opinion, with any of the mentioned films.

As a significant film about tragic irony, I'd recommend Allah Tantou. You can read more about the subject matter of the film and Camp Boiro (which is where Marof was imprisoned) at campboiro.org. You can even watch this film in its entirety on the site.

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End Of The Week Shorts #45

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Letter From An Unknown Woman - Anima Possession

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End Of The Week Shorts #45

Today's shorts: I, Tonya (2017), The Shape of Water (2017), Zatôichi’s Cane Sword (1967), Downsizing (2017), The Black Cat (1934), Salaam Bombay! (1988), Black Panther (2018), Ten (2002)

I, Tonya is a powerful, seemingly quintessentially American, story. Much like all the great gangster movies, this poses a question to its main character: What matters more, success and purpose, or substance and meaning? What makes these narratives so powerful is the fact that the characters are not given the tools or means to properly confront this question. Rather, they fight against the world, paying dearly for their shortcomings whilst trying to formulate a response to their struggles that leaves them a hero. Such, however, seems to be a mere dream. The American Dream then seems to have been modified by gangster films (since the 30s) and now films such as I, Tonya. They argue that the dream is a lie you tell yourself whilst fighting for tangible truth; and this truth is ultimately blood on the floor that you can only try to dance around. 
A brilliant story put to the screen quite well, I, Tonya is really worth the watch.

A re-watch didn't brighten my view of The Shape Of Water, but, I still think that it is pretty good. The story, whilst it holds some poetic qualities in connection to water as a body that holds innocence and preserves good, is nice and engaging, but feels like it lacks substance. The same is quite true in the character department. What I appreciate most about The Shape Of Water, however, is that it is one of the somewhat rare modern films that takes time to develop its antagonist. In fact, Michael Shannon as Strickland is, in my view, the best part of this film. Not only is he written as a round and distinct person, but he is evil in a manner that makes sense; he isn't a caricature or a stock figure like most of the other characters in this film are to varying degrees. 
In the end, this isn't a game changer, but it is a solid film. Worth the watch.

Think we get a lot of sequels, prequels and so on these days? Zatôichi’s Cane Sword is the 15th film of a series of 26 feature-length chambara (samurai) pictures that preceded a 100 episode long T.V show. 
I haven't seen any other Zatôichi film and stumbled upon this one, watching it completely blind to the fact that this was part of a series. So, whilst you do sense that there is history and more story around this film as you watch it, I must say that it stands alone really well, providing a strong story about patience and choosing the right moment. I can't say how this would compare to any other Zatôichi film, and so feel wary about giving an opinion on this, but I had a good time with Zatôichi’s Cane Sword. The dialogue and comedy could have been better, but the story and fight choreography shine. If you're intrigued, why not give this a go?

Though it's just a little bit pompous, Downsizing is a truly brilliant movie. As much as it is about pollution, the environment, class divides and so on, this is a very simple film. With all the grand political themes taking a real backseat, Downsizing is just about a guy who is lost in the world. He doesn't know how to make the people around him happy, he doesn't know how to make the world better and he doesn't know what to do with his life. Following a cliched and trope-ridden journey with a child's eyes, our main character learns a poignant lesson that is, itself, not incredibly profound, but is certainly uplifting to see come together. 
This is existential sci-fi executed brilliantly and with some really nice shades of comedy. I highly recommend this one.

The Black Cat is one of those movies that I just can't read. I don't know whether this is just awkward 30s nonsense, or if there's sense and meaning buried beneath the intermittently expressive mise en scène, the rigid acting, the strangely disjointed structure of scenes and the queer editing, but I do know that I'm confused. 
What struck me on this re-watch is how little Julie Bishop's feet are on the ground. It's far from uncommon to see a woman draped across a man's (robot's, vampire's, sea creature's or monster's) arms on an Old Hollywood poster, but it's even less common for the poster to actually be reflective of the film. And, beyond the fact that this was one of the earliest films to have a continuous score throughout, I think that is the most unique thing about The Black Cat.

Salaam Bombay is a powerful film, one that explores the streets of Bombay and the lives of the underclass that live on and off of them. Following a set of homeless children, prostitutes, drug addicts and more, Salaam Bombay pulls few punches in depicting the overwhelming futility of poverty. This then poses a question with its final sequence, one that features a parade in honour of Ganesha who is, among other things, considered the remover of obstacles: Why have so many seemingly insurmountable objects been placed in front of so many people, whose main crime seems to be of naivety, and when--if ever--will they ever be removed? 
Though the structure of Salaam Bombay doesn't build towards this question perfectly, this is a poignant film, one I'd recommend.

This is not a superhero movie. This is not a Marvel movie... at least, I struggle to see it as such. Black Panther is the best Marvel movie I've ever seen - it's certainly one of my favourites (looking past Spiderman 2, which isn't really apart of the MCU). It simply has such a complete and compelling story and a many of rich, fully rounded characters. These are things that I don't see any other Marvel movie even coming close to rivaling Black Panther on. On top of this, however, Black Panther has some of the best comedic sensibilities of any superhero movie ever - and it's often not even trying to be that funny. 
I won't say that this is perfect, however. The cinematography... so many scenes simply aren't bright enough. You can't tell what's going on. Despite this one glaring flaw, I have to say that this is an incredible movie. I'll be seeing this again soon and writing about it more extensively.

Ten is a masterful character study, one of the most true and intricate I've ever come into contact with. 
Kiarostami pushes the Iranian docu-drama far beyond an illusion with Ten, not only capturing seeming reality, but transcending it, leaving the audience entirely disinterested in what is fact and what is fiction. This is how convincing and brilliantly constructed his narrative truths are. Similarly, it does not matter who is right and who is wrong in each and every exchange. With the conversation presented as a form of therapeutic analysis for both spectators and characters, what matters is the space between and beyond characters: their lives and their society. I cannot recommend this more. You're doing yourself a disservice if you've not seen this.

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Arrietty - The Family Spirits

Thoughts On: Arrietty (借りぐらしのアリエッティ, 2010)

A family of tiny gatherers come under threat when they are seen by a young boy.

Arrietty is a meticulously beautiful Ghibli film and was a much-needed turn around for the studio after Tales of Earthsea and Ponyo. Taking Ghibli back to a time of quiet and peace that they captured in the late 80s/early 90s with Grave Of The Fireflies, My Neighbour Totoro, Kiki's Delivery Service and Only Yesterday, Yonebayashi steers Ghibli away from the scale and chaos of the previous two films quite literally. And so, whilst there has been a rather intense focus on action and huge, sweeping animation ever since Spirited Away, Arrietty's attention is all on the minutia of character animation, still life and sound design.

For anyone who hasn't seen Arrietty, to fully appropriate the film, you must listen in a way that no other Ghibli film has ever really demanded. The world of this narrative is completely encompassed in subtle sonic waves that have you feel the weight and size of everything in relation to one another - and without being too obvious. It is then to be expected from any film that deals with a small world interacting with a big world that huge thumping footsteps and loud voices will contrast and conflict with tiny footsteps and squeaky voices. Arrietty smartly subverts this trope completely, giving the small figures the same voicing as the humans and refraining from the depiction of humans as big, slow, dumb giants, which is an integral decision clearly made to humanise the Borrowers and show that they aren't feeble, novel creatures. What's more, this film doesn't exploit the world of and use its novelty as an excuse to just play a game. This is what you see in the British-American adaptation of the book Ghibli also loosely transcribed onto film:

As you can tell from the trailer, this is not a film about calm and quite, about a serious and troubling - though reservedly small-scale - conflict between two worlds. I haven't seen this movie since I was a young kid, however, and so I won't say anything more than I'm pretty sure it's not as good as Arrietty.

What strikes me most about Arrietty beyond its incredibly technical direction is the allegory it builds into. Before we delve into this, I think it's appropriate to talk a little about Mary Norton's original series of books. We hit a bit of a wall here, again, as I haven't read any of the books. However, it seems to fit into a very specific time in the world: the 1950s . Emerging from the 50s were a selection of sci-fi fantasy books and movies about people being or seeming very small. Three of the most iconic films that come to my mind are Attack of the 50 Foot Woman, The Incredible Shrinking Man and The Day the Earth Stood Still.


1950s American sci-fi is incredibly interesting as so many films and books of the genre and time are really direct reflections of the fact that the world was emerging from a post-war era and (for America) were transitioning into a highly prosperous period that was overshadowed by the Cold War and huge social change. Whilst films such as The Invasion Of The Body Snatchers are then quite obviously about a fear of Communism, the films we have listed are a little more subtle. Attack of the 50 Foot Woman seemingly deals with emasculation, The Incredible Shrinking Man, the scale of the new, nuclear world, and The Day The Earth Stood Still, the precariousness and frailty of a technologically developed and dependent society. We can think of these films as existentialist reactions to change in American 1950s society. This change, however, was not confined to America as the 50s and 60s saw huge social change spread across most of the world. This may explain why some of these films were and are so globally iconic, and also why a book such as The Borrowers would emerge from this time, 1952, in the UK.

Very much so like The Incredibly Shrinking Man, and most other stories that deal with small worlds interacting with big worlds, The Borrowers owes much to the stories of the homunculus, or anthroparion, archetype. The homunculus/anthroparion is a small little being often created by alchemists, inventors, scientists or wizards, and it is often used to question humanity.

In a way, the homunculus is humans recognising that they can be the Gods that give birth to a new species, and thus these small creatures (and others alike) have been integrated into theories of the inner man. Jung, for example, suggested just this; that the homunculus/anthroparion symbolised the inner being. However, other cognitive scientists use the homunculus for an allegorical argument describing the way in which the brain perceives the world; they argue that it is as if there is a little man/woman inside our heads who processes things. Cognitive scientists, of course, don't mean this literally, but seemingly want to suggest that there is a divide between our brain and body; that our brain is maybe slightly autonomous or free from our consciousness and so operates with a set of rules we cannot control. All of these associations to the homunculus and the world of the small person suggest that there is something deeply embedded into the character, something that is suppose to say quite a lot about who we are. Added to this, as 50s sci-fi/fantasy makes clear, the reflection that the smaller world, or even the bigger world, of low fantasy has upon humanity has much to do with changes in the real world.

Taking this set of ideas into Arrietty, we should be quite open to a lot of subtext. And so, as you may expect, Ghibli uses the homunculus, the Borrower, to possibly comment on changing times in Japan and the family who owns the home that this narrative is centred on. Like the quieter Ghibli films that we mentioned earlier (Grave Of The Fireflies, My Neighbour Totoro, Kiki's Delivery Service and Only Yesterday), Arrietty is concerned with family, most specifically, however, its possible dissolution - which leaves Arrietty more akin to Grave Of The Fireflies and My Neighbour Totoro than Kiki's Delivery Service and Only Yesterday. Possibly reflecting the crumbling of the nuclear family through divorce - a world wide trend, and national trend in Japan, since the 50s - Arrietty's fundamental use of the Borrowers is to contrast a broken family with a solid family.

What is most telling in this respect is that the Borrowers have lived in the human household for 4 generations. This may sound like a random number, but, looking back 4 generations we come to the war and post-war generations that were born in the the 40s, 50s and 60s. With this allusion to a generational conflict that has lasted since the 40s inside a film that is very clearly about family seems to provide strong evidence for the idea that the subtextual drive of this narrative is divorce and the more general dissolution of families that has been up-trending since this era.

With that noted, we can begin to look for greater specificity by asking why the homunculus figures are called Borrowers. What is the significance of their relationship as not-thieves with humans? This is a difficult question to answer as the small people aren't borrowing anything; they're stealing. The best answer I can conjure would involve thinking of the family in your own household. They take food and resources, but you wouldn't call them thieves - especially since those resources are probably meant for them. However, what if the family members in your house were estranged, but were still taking food. Because everyone is family, and they may not be taking more than what they deserve as family, you wouldn't want to call them thieves. Maybe the correct euphemism to describe the strange dynamic would be 'borrowers'?

This seems to be the best way to at least describe the homunculus family. They're stealing, but, we assume that their place is in the house - that they are almost like house spirits - so their title of thieves is euphemistically reduced to just 'borrowers' to relinquish negative connotations. And with that said, we can again return to this question: What is the significance of their relationship as not-thieves with humans?

As estranged family, or house spirits of sorts, the borrowers relationship with the humans is defined by friction. They have a place in the household, one that implicitly questions the ethics of the family within. Let's do a minor thought experiment. Imagine the borrowers are living in your house. How would your family react? Maybe some people would be freaked out, annoyed or disgusted, and want them gone. Maybe others wouldn't mind sharing the space and supporting the little family. But, what does it say about your family if there are some people who want the small creatures destroyed?

The tone of Arrietty, and other similar films that deal with small worlds interacting with big ones, suggests that aggression directed towards the small world is an indication that the bigger world is corrupt or damaged in some way. Think of films such as Ratatouille, An American Tail or Pom Poko. Ratatouille deals with the suppression of dreams; the big world is the suppressor. An American Tail deals with immigration; the big world is the breaker of harsh realities. Pom Poko deals with pollution and deforestation; forces of the big world. Arrietty as a film about family features a small, closely knit world that is striving to strengthen, whilst the bigger world - the household of a deteriorating family who have essentially abandoned their dying son with a maid - threatens to tear it apart.

With it now pretty clear that the Borrowers test the ethics of the human family by essentially holding up a mirror to them, we should ask what it is that they borrow. With every sugar cube that the Borrowers take also comes family values. We get a sense of this because, if the small world and the big world were aligned, then the Borrowers wouldn't have to borrow; they would simply be house spirits quite like the zashiki-warashi (a.k.a zashiki bokko).

The zashiki-warashi (translation: guest-room child) as a Japanese house spirit that indicates family prosperity and good fortune test the family they live with with simple mischief. The zashiki-warashi, much like other house spirits such as the Domovoi, seem to represent the essence of family. Family is difficult, and it takes patience and sacrifice to maintain. This seems to be why house spirits are often depicted as mischievous and should be left gifts. The Borrowers are a reincarnation of the house spirit and, as said, are bound to the homunculus. And such encapsulates all we have so far been discussing. The Borrowers as tragic house spirits who are forced to take minor gifts are a reflection of the inner being of dissolving families. When the family becomes aggressive, the Borrowers are forced to leave. And when a family becomes aggressive to the spirit of familial being, it is liable to fall apart itself.

Arrietty is a film about exactly this. There is no mother and father to speak of; the house is destabilised (and may have been this way for many generations). With the family falling apart, the maid becomes like an evil step mother. The evil step mother herself often symbolises chaos entering a once-perfect family that was struck by tragedy. We need only think of classical Disney films here. The maid, Haru, doesn't seem to care too much for the family she serves, she just does her job. It then makes sense that her character would not care for Borrowers like the Great Aunt does. The Great Aunt understands that the spirit of their family lies in the embrace of the Borrowers; it shows that they understand that family itself is sacrifice and care. However, Haru is motivated only by her job, and, in a way, the fact that the family is broken. After all, if the family was fully functional, she wouldn't have a place. This then says much about her wanting to capturing and hold hostage the Borrowers. But, the fact that Shō, the sick boy, understands and cares for the Borrowers despite Haru implies that there is hope for the future.

Shō is willing to sacrifice small things, such as sugar (symbolic of sweetness; empathy even), to maintain the small family. This act of sacrifice is a clear virtue. He also understands, however, that the right thing to do is more than turn a blind eye to the borrowing. The physical offering of the doll house is then incredibly key as it shows an attempt to not just accept the Borrowers, but integrate them into the family, turning them into house spirits of sorts that would welcome good fortune as they, themselves, would signify that the family understands the ethics of familial being.

The fact that the Borrowers do not live in the doll house is an expressive one; the Borrowers know they are not fully welcome - which may just be a consequence of the family being unstable, of there being no collective attempt to welcome them. The homunculus have remained Borrowers for so long, taking instead of receiving, which indicates that family values are evaporating. If they are forced to leave, we can then assume that this may signify that all family values have been completely lost.

What you would then expect from Arrietty is a reconciliation between worlds, for the Borrower family to move into the doll house and Shō's family to sort itself out. This, however, is not what we get. Arrietty ends with the Borrowers leaving and with a set of difficult questions. Will the Borrowers survive out in the wild, and how for long? Will their species die out, and does this indicate something tragic about the state of familial being in Japan? With the Borrowers leaving, is it accepted that Shō's family is inevitably going to fall apart? Is he going to die soon, alone with just Haru at his surgery, and will this be the cause of the family's dissolution?

Because of the tone of the film, I find it hard to foresee such a dark future. Instead, I think that Shō, as he suggests, has been given the courage to live on, and new Borrowers will move into his home. Just as different families came and went for previous generations in the house hold (which may further suggest that there is a long history of divorce and dissolution for Shō's family), new Borrowers may come as he becomes head of the household. Will Shō then welcome the new Borrowers and teach his children to care for them too? Will his family be functional, will they understand the spirit of familial being, and will they be as strong as the little Borrowers who hold up a mirror to them are?

For these beautifully constructed questions, I have to say that Arrietty is up there with the best of Studio Ghibli's films. But, there is more to be said about this film. So, what are your thoughts on Arrietty and all we've talked about today?

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