Director: Goro Miyazaki
Writer: Tetsurô Sayama, Hayao Miyazaki and Keiko Niwa
PLOT: Umi Matsuzaki is a 16-year-old student at Isogo High School living in Coquelicot Manor, a boarding house overlooking the Port of Yokohama in Japan. Her mother Ryoko is a medical professor studying abroad in the United States. Umi runs the house and looks after her younger siblings Sora and Riku and her grandmother, Hana. College student Sachiko Hirokouji and doctor-in-training Miki Hokuto also live there. Each morning, Umi raises a set of signal flags with the message “I pray for safe voyages”. Also, a group of Yokohama teens look to save their school’s clubhouse from the wrecking ball in preparations for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, led by Shun Kazama.
REVIEW: No matter what, I am always pumped to go see a new Studio Ghibli film, especially when Hayao Miyazaki is directly involved. This film is written by Hayao and Keiko Niwa, adapted from graphic novel. This is where both the films great beauty and serious flaws come in. Directed by Hayao’s son, Goro Miyazaki, this appears to be a perfect tale for the father and son team to tackle.
The official IMDb plot synopsis is fairly bland and doesn’t truly capture what this film is about. The opening voice over by the lead, Umi Matsuzaki really tells this tale. This is a time in Japan (early 1960’s), where the Japanese people were struggling day to day with how to proceed as a nation and a people. They had just been involved in two giant wars (Korean and, of course, World War 2) that devastated them as a people. They are trying to decide whether to plunge into the future boldly and completely disregard the past. Or, should they embrace the past and learn from it, and have it inform their future. This is the heart of this story.
Umi has lost her father in the Korean War and her mother is away in America studying. Umi is the woman of a very busy household. She longs for her parents, her father most of all and spends her life steeped in tradition and routine. At school, Shun and his clubhouse full of ‘Lost Boys’ are seeking to hold onto tradition and keep their chaotic frat house alive, while the school wants to tear it down and pave way to a bigger and brighter clubhouse. The parallels are ever present.
The beauty of this story is in the burgeoning love story between Umi and Shun that appears perfect. But, there are hidden complications that make this a supremely tragic love story that emphasizes the bitterness of some of the people at this time. The two teens must learn to simultaneously embrace their pasts, but also learn from them and move on from them.
If that all sounds like a lot, well, I have even got to the house full of boarders, the signal flags, the riotous debates and the plethora of supporting characters. I want to emphasize, this is a very funny and beautiful story. I laughed consistently throughout at the ridiculous supporting characters and ‘nose tears’ of the boys in blue. Oh, yes, and the sometimes outrageous musical score.
The problem with this movie is with in it’s adaptation of the original material by Tetsurô Sayama. I haven’t read it, but ultimately, I could tell (without knowing in advance) that this was a series of comic issues. There are a number of story points that rise and fall with little to no purpose. Characters who enter and leave the story as if we should care. Poignant moments that are only poignant within the beauty of the moment. But in the scope of the story, those moments are lost in the grand scheme of things. It feels like there are hidden vignettes to this story as we hit upon flashbacks and more that feel out of place or too much too late – but that could work in the context of an individual episodic story.
My feeling is that this story could of and should have either been severely streamlined and lost much of the excess story baggage. Or, this should have been better served as a 10-20 episode televised mini-series that could have benefited by the many false rises and falls of the story-arc.
Also, I’ve noticed an interesting pattern with Ghibli films, that must be a Japanese cultural thing. Several of their films tend to end VERY abruptly, without getting to a satisfying climax. This film does it, My Neighbor Totoro does it; Ponyo, The Secret of Arriety does it. It is strange. I am okay with it – but it can be a bit of a shock, I do wish it was handled a little different.
We saw the English dubbed version of the film, which is not normally my preference. I want the Japanese actors with the original intended voice acting and inflections. What I found was that sometimes the voices didn’t seem to match the characters on screen and sometimes even it would be a very mournful line delivery with a very joyous face on screen (or vice versa). I think the American voice director was not very strong in their interpretation of the material.
But look. I am ragging a lot on the film – but I really enjoyed it. I have several nitpicks, but I think it is the best Ghibli film in several years and I found myself lost in it’s world. I love the designs and the ridiculous characters and especially the characters with oodles and oodles of heart. This is a story about generations and the father/son Miyazaki team handle those moments with ease and it makes me long to go back into their worlds again soon.