Rates: * * * *
Why Did I Watch It? This is the last Studio Ghibli feature I had not seen.
Umi is an earnest Japenese schoolgirl living in Tokyo, in the run up to the 1964 Olympics. Her father, a merchant seaman, died in the Korean War, and her mother is finishing her tertiary studies in the US; she lives with her aunt and helps her run her boarding house, alongside her studies. Then she meets Shun, an equally earnest boy who edits the school newspaper.
The two are brought together by a common cause; saving the enormous, ramshackle student clubhouse that the government wants to knock down, as part of a pre-Olympics ‘modernisation’ program. As they work alongside one another, canvassing and campaigning, fixing up the clubhouse and trying to rally support for its preservation, their mutual respect develops into something more. But the gentle feelings they start to have for each other are imperilled by an old photograph; the characters have more in common than they realise.
Studio Ghibli’s 20-odd feature films play in one of two lanes; magical fantasy, or astutely observed dramedy. This, one of their last (to date), is in the latter category; a warm and winning coming of age story about too immensely likable characters, dealing with an unusual situation.
The animation is as perfectly realised as you would expect from the studio, and shows a particular flair for capturing some varied landscapes; the windswept ocean front where Umi lives, and the crowded downtown of central Tokyo. And then there is the clubhouse, which looks like ‘Howl’s Moving Castle’; a fantastical building with endless staircases, nooks, cubbyholes and walkways, and which is home to a seemingly infinite array of clubs, each of which gets a space. No wonder the kids don’t want to let it go.
You realise as the story progresses there is a reason for Umi and Shun’s very composed demeanours; both have experienced personal tragedy. It is possible, even, that they share the same father. The film replays these events, in brief flashbacks; you can feel the power of them, and see how they continue to impact the character’s lives. The past is not just a bunch of memories but an ever present thing, always with us.
The film was directed by Goro Miyazaki, Hayao’s son, with the old master supplying the screenplay; and it demonstrates much of Hayao’s style and concerns. Most notably, the destruction of the past, and abandonment of traditional ways; here represented by the prospective demolition of the clubhouse, and government officals only eying the future. And the value of work is championed, as ever. But Goro also puts his own stamp on the movie; the characters are more grounded than you find in other Miyazaki films, and their problems more immediately relatable. There is also a charming, jazzy score, like something out of an old Woody Allen film.
A well rendered, and lovingly made, tribute to the recent past.