February 28, 2005
Isao Takahata is not a name most Americans will recognize. Mention his name, and more often than not, you will be greeted with shrugs. But make no mistake: Takahata is a poet who has revolutionized animation as an art form. If you see his Grave of the Fireflies, you will be tempted to call it his masterpiece. I felt the same way myself, but I was wrong. Omohide Poro Poro is his masterpiece.
I'll be even bolder and declare this to be the finest animated picture ever made; a grand achievement of animation as art form. It proves to be deeply moving, at many times overwhelming; yet is also close, small, intimate. This is one of the great movies of our lives.
Takahata only made one fantasy adventure picture, his first, The Adventure of Hols, Prince of the Sun, in 1968 with Hayao Miyazaki. Miyazaki fell in love with adventure movies; Takahata moved in the opposite direction, towards realism. He strove to create animation influenced by neo-realism, a naturalism in the style of Jean Renoir and Yasujiro Ozu.
Omohide Poro Poro best incorporates the traits and skills Takahata developed during the 1970's, when he revolutionized animation in Japan with World Masterpiece Theatre, presenting television renditions of Heidi and Anne of Green Gables, and then in 1982 with his great Goshu the Cellist.
His style is reflective and deeply personal, very much like Ozu, but Takahata's greatest gift, for me at least, is his ability to take us inside the heads of his characters as their imaginations take flight. That trait is what made his version of Anne so memorable; here, he takes one story and molds an entirely different story from within.
Omohide Poro Poro is the story of a Tokyo office worker named Taeko. At age 27, she feels dissatisfied, unhappy with her life. She slowly begins to question some of her life decisions, her choice in careers. When we first see her, she has decided to spend a week with her sister's in-laws who live out in the country.
Taeko puts on a happy face and gets along well with others, but we discover that much of this is a shell, a cover. Over the course of the movie, she wonders out loud if her whole life has been a front to pacify the outside world. Perhaps she is entering another moment of growth in her life, and she begins to reflect upon another similar time, her childhood and early adolescence.
The movie dances about, from the present day (1982) to Taeko-chan's tenth year (1966), and back again. For almost anyone's first viewing, it's the flashbacks in Poro Poro that leap out in our minds. These scenes are drawn in a style I've never seen before in an animated film. The screen is drawn very sparsly, with colors and details fading away at the edges of the screen. The amount of visual detail is striking, almost like sketches from a beloved children's book, painted with spring-tone watercolors.
The 1966 episodes capture that painterly sense of nostalgia better than just about any other movie I've seen. One obvious comparison I could make is Wild Strawberries; imagine Bergman's classic, drowned in Warhol pop, echoing song lyrics like Bob Dylan in his prime. It's a thing of beauty to watch the past and present intertwine, commenting on one another, dancing in grand celebration of the joys and sorrows of life.
How can I describe this to someone in America who only knows animation in the language of Walt Disney and Chuck Jones? Our first time watching Grave of the Fireflies is a lot like being hit in the chest with a cinder block. It's impossible not to be deeply moved, and I've discovered that Takahata achieves that feat in all his work. Fireflies, of course, has its poetic tragedy; this film affects me far more with its beauty and grace.
Looking at the life of this woman, we identify with her awkwordness and tragedies. Taeko-chan's life is a series of setbacks, losses great and small. Granted, she is on a path to her self-discovery, but it isn't until the very end that you realize the great unspoken conflict in the movie. Namely, how did this precocious, curious child become the polite woman in a stale desk job? Her story is much like the Japanese saying that the upright nail gets the hammer; it's Takahata's thinly-disguised stab at his country's conformist culture.
There are so many brilliant moments in the 1966 scenes that describing them would mean reciting the entire plot. I love the episode involving Taeko's crush on another boy in school; a baseball game is skillfully played as duel, chase, and showdown that captures all the magic and fear of first loves. I love the sequence involving the girls' emerging puberty and emergence into womanhood; it's both endearingly funny and sobering from a boy's point-of-view. I'm endlessly enamored with Taeko's short stab at acting, which leads to interest by the local college theatre group; it's a masterpiece of editing and pop montage, it turns horribly tragic, all set against the backdrop of a popular children's show called Hyokkori Hyoutan Jima. The final moment is a redemptive triumph that beautifully sums up Taeko's whole life, and maybe Takahata's, too. It may be the best scene he's ever filmed.
By contrast, Poro Poro's other half - the story set in the present - exchanges the faded pop nostalgia for luminous, bold colors, family drama, and an almost documentary realism. Taeko's arrival in the country brings her in the company of Toshio, a young man who walked away from the punishing city life for the simple life of a farmer. "Do you like this music?" he asks Taeko as he walks her to his car. "It's music for peasants. I like it because I'm a peasant, too." His cheery demenor and thoughtful disposition begin a series of conversations between the two, very often in that tiny car.
Toshio's conversion to a more traditional rural life fits in with much of the nostalgia in Studio Ghibli's films; I strongly suspect this may also be a direct conversation with the audience. By 1991, Japan's bubble economy had burst, plunging the nation into a cycle of endless recession that only now is ending. Takahata (who doesn't quite share Hayao Miyazaki's legendary work ethic) has little respect for the unrelenting corporate culture. His world resides in the quieter, rural Japan of the past.
This life is neither shown to be light or trivial; it is hard work at long hours and little pay. A brilliantly moving sequence goes into great detail showing the process of picking safflowers to make cosmetic dyes, and then brings us to the fields at dawn as Taeko and her relatives pick flowers. Now maybe I was mistaken before; maybe this is the greatest scene Takahata has ever filmed.
This moment is so sparse, so perfectly zen, that we almost think we're watching nothing at all. But watch them pick flowers. Listen to that majestic Hungarian folk and choir music - such marvelous music! - and just wait, enjoy the moment. Gradually, slowly, almost in real-time, we see the sun peak behind the mountains, and it dawns on us: we're watching the sunrise. It's just about the most beautiful scene I've ever witnessed.
When you look at Isao Takahata's greatest works, you find a crucial common denominator: Yoshifumi Kondo. Kondo served as the charcter designer and animation director on Anne of Green Gables, a role he reprised faithfully for years at Studio Ghibli. His drawing style is superb, absolutely perfect for a naturalist style. His sensibility is also close to Takahata's, who later remarked that both Grave of the Firefles and Poro Poro could never be made without him. I say Kondo was the best character artist in the business, and his death in 1998 remains a terrible loss.
The official western title to this film is "Only Yesterday," although I confess I much prefer the original Japanese title, "Omohide Poro Poro" It can be (loosely) translated as "Memories of Falling Teardrops," which appeals to me because of its Yasujiro Ozu influence. It seems fitting to me that both Japanese filmmakers should be mentioned in the same breath. This film is a work of genius - Ozu painted with watercolors.
(Update 11/24/12: I've been asked to clarify on the movie's title. "Omohide Poro Poro" doesn't have a direct English translation. "Omohide" means "memories," and "Poro Poro" is a Japanese onomatopoeia that, in this instance, carries a double meaning: "raindrops" and "teardrops." This is similar to the double meaning in Takahata's Grave of the Fireflies - "Hotaru no Haka" doubly suggests fireflies and firebombs. In any event, "Memories of Falling Teardrops" is a slightly poetic translation of the Japanese title, and it's suggestive of Yasujiro Ozu's movies. You may prefer a slightly different translation. In any case, I always refer to this movie in its original Japanese title, Omohide Poro Poro. And, no, I've never been a fan of Ghibli's "international" titles; the original titles are much more poetic. Don't you agree?)