"Poppy Hill's" subtle seeds

May 23rd, 2013
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poppy hill poster v3Let's get the news out of the way first: From Up on Poppy Hill is going into its seventh week of screenings at the Kahala 8 theaters. From Friday through next Thursday, it'll be showing there daily at 11 a.m. It's now managed to outlast the local theatrical runs of Scary Movie 5, The Big Wedding, and some movie called Peeples, and it's lasted more than three times as long as Goro Miyazaki's previous Ghibli film, Tales From Earthsea, did at the Ward theaters.

I've had the … privilege? … of watching Poppy Hill on my own dime four times. I'd hoped that at least one of those times would be in Japanese, but nope … always in English, every single time. For those of you keeping score, that's a whole lot of repeat viewings of the trailers for Epic (meh), Despicable Me 2 (yay Minions!), Monsters University (yay Mike and Sully!), Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs 2 (yay colorful, imaginative venues!) and Turbo (which I believe pushes the tally of CGI family films released by Hollywood this year to 500 bazillion).

When you see it as often as I have, you start noticing subtle things here and there, neat little details that make the movie that much cooler. I've shared some of my favorite bits below. Suffice it to say there are numerous spoilers for those of you who haven't seen the movie yet, but if you have, they'll make for some neat things to look for in a repeat viewing, whether at the Kahala or later this year on home video.

1. Ooh. Girls. Dur hur hur hur.

It's pretty obvious from the first time that Umi and Sora set foot in the Latin Quarter that girls have been a rare sight there for quite a while. The two Astronomy Club boys out in front comment on it, and Shiro, the student council president, offers to accompany Sora out when Umi and Shun decide to stay back for a while. Umi eventually leaves when the various clubs are called to a meeting on the first floor. As she's heading out the door, though, just before the scene changes, you can barely hear someone say, "Hey, look! X chromosome!"

2. If at first you don't succeed, squeak and honk 'til you do

Sure, there's quite a bit of important dialogue that goes on between Umi and Shun in the Archaeology Club/Latin Quarter Weekly room. But if you listen carefully to the background noise during their first meeting, you can also hear two people -- one on a xylophone, one on a recorder -- practicing musical scales. The highest note, though, seems to be elusive for that poor recorder player, the clear top tone on the xylophone followed by a high-pitched squeak that doesn't quiiiiiiiiiite reach the same heights. Persistence does pay off, though, as in a later visit, we finally hear the notes match ... and even later, if you listen carefully to the music mix on "The Indigo Waves," the song that everyone sings in the Latin Quarter, you can hear a recorder providing some of the instrumental backing.

3. The eating machines of Coquelicot Manor

Umi's younger brother Riku, as we see in the movie's opening minutes, is a growing boy with an appetite to match. Sachiko, the boarding house's resident starving artist, is always happy with a plate of food in front of her (even if her spaciness does cause her to misidentify things every now and then, thinking the bag of beef jerky that Umi's mom brings back from America is a pork product). Put them together, and you get a situation like the one during Miki's going-away party: A new platter of something -- I'm going to assume it's some lovely sashimi slices, although it's really hard to say -- arrives, and Sachiko hurriedly switches out the empty platter in front of herself and Riku with the full one. But for every one piece Sachiko snags with her chopsticks, Riku manages to sweep up five or six.

Growing boy, indeed.

4. A quiet Giant homage

Poppy Hill is a cinematic love letter to the Japan of 1963, with the era's architecture, the run-up to the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo and Kyu Sakamoto's "Ue O Muite Arukou" -- the song we know here in the U.S. as "Sukiyaki" -- being the most obvious nods. There's also a more subtle tribute, though: When Shun comes home from Miki's party, his dad is watching a baseball game. Listen carefully, and you can hear the play-by-play announcer describing an at-bat where a player named Nagashima, batting for the Giants, strikes out. Later, as Umi, Shun and Shiro are waiting outside the Tokyo office of the high school chairman, Tokumaru, three men walk by talking about Nagashima and his MVP potential. (One guy's a bit confused, though, saying he'll score a lot of goals.)

It turns out this Nagashima guy was a big deal in Japan in 1963. In fact, he's Shigeo Nagashima, the Yomiuri Giants' other big star during the time that another player who may be more familiar to hard-core baseball fans, worldwide home run leader Sadaharu Oh, played for the team. Looking at that Wikipedia article I linked with his name as well as this Japan Times article from last month, when he and more recent baseball star Hideki Matsui were announced as this year's joint recipients of the Japanese prime minister's People's Honor Award, you can see just how much of a big deal he was over his career -- 1958 Central League Rookie of the Year, six batting titles, five Central League MVP awards, five Japan Series MVP awards, 13 Central League championships and 11 Japan Series championships. It was in 1963 that he snagged one of those Central League MVP awards and Central League and Japan Series championships.

Oh yeah, I should also mention that he retired in 1974, took over as Giants manager and won five more Central League titles and two more Japan Series titles. Makes you wonder what he could have done major leagues in the U.S. had the Japanese exodus -- the one that's included players like Hideo Nomo, Ichiro Suzuki, Daisuke Matsuzaka and Yu Darvish -- happened during his era instead.

5. The parting shots

So everyone's sung "The Indigo Waves," Tokumaru's announced that the Latin Quarter will be preserved, Umi and Shun are about to get the definitive final words about their fathers, and we're heading headlong toward our "happily ever after" ending. But there are two things of note in the closing minutes. First, when everyone's celebrating over saving the Latin Quarter, one of the things that gets tossed up is a daruma, that round, red doll typically used to wish for a certain goal. And second -- and I'm giving tag-team partner in fandom Wilma J. credit for spotting this detail before I did -- there's a certain plaque on the Koyo Maru, the ship captained by Onodera, that the camera lingers on for a few seconds.

The plaque has one word on it.

"GHIBLI."

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