Omohide Poro Poro
|Reviews & Articles|
The Japan Times, August 7, 1991.
ANIMATION FOR GROWNUPS
By MARK SCHILLING
Animation is a Japanese passion; kids here can choose from more than 30 half-hour cartoons a week, and two of those shows, "Sazaesan" and "Chibi Maruko-chan" dominated the ratings race until recently. (After enjoying a huge boom last year, the latter program has begun to fade.)
To an American, at least, their popularity may seem puzzling. Compared with Road Runner, Roger Rabbit, or even Bart Simpson, they look rather bland, tame, prosaic. Where's the action, the antics, the over-the-top surrealism? Where are the kicks for kids?
One answer is that these shows aren't only for children. "Chibi Maruko-chan" is designed as a trip down memory lane for twenty-something women. Though ostensibly set in a timeless present, "Sazaesan" is actually about the Japan of the High Growth era. Its intended audience is the whole family, from the grandmothers who are Sazaesan's real contemporaries to the tots who will watch virtually anything that moves.
Producer Hayao Miyazaki and director Isao Takahata were no doubt encouraged by the popularity of these shows when they decided to make "Omoide Poro-poro," based on the comic by Yuko Tone and Kei Okamoto. The story of an OL's solitary journey to the countryside and her past, it also reaches out to a wider audience than that for typical animated features.
Like "Chibi Maruko-chan," it focuses on the misadventures of a young girl and caters to Yuppie nostalgia for childhood. "Omoide Poro-poro," however, looks back farther, to 1966, when hemlines first rose to fantastic heights, the Beatles played the Budokan, and the heroine entered the fifth grade.
It also ventures farther in the direction of psychological and visual realism, while avoiding the self-consciously cute or cartoony. Taeko, the heroine, is a bit bored with her job, and uncertain about her future. Now 27, she senses that she is at a turning point, but doesn't know which direction to take. Marriage? Perhaps, but she has no particular candidate in mind.
Without knowing why, she begins to remember her tenth year---and find a self she had forgotten. She strikes us, in other words, as a complex, three-dimensional woman, not a manga character.
Also, though the countryside she visits is that of a city-bred imagination, all lush green loveliness and friendly salt-of-the-earth farmers, its trees, rocks and people are drawn with painstaking, occasionally striking, attention to detail. This meticulousness extends even to the narrative. When Taeko arrives in Yamagata Prefecture after a all-night train journey and begins to help her in-laws with their work of making lipstick coloring from safflowers, the film describes the process with the exhaustiveness of an NHK documentary.
Given the filmmakers' obsession with the actual, it may seem strange that they use animation at all. Why not film real rocks, trees and people, and save the labor of drawing them? The answer, I think, is that Miyazaki and Takahata, a veteran team who also collaborated in "Majo no Takkyubin (The Witch's Delivery Service)," the top-grossing Japanese film of 1989, see animation as a valid medium for subjects once reserved for film. They want their art to take its rightful place at the grownup's table.
They state their case vividly, charmingly, poignantly. The flashbacks, especially, work well; they not only have the right period look, down to Taeko's ballerina in her round plastic case, but the right feel as well. Taeko's first encounters with romance, stage fright, and the mysteries of menstruation are told with comic punch and a sharply observant eye.
Her adventures as an adult, however, are less amusing, more predictable. From the moment she meets a bright-eyed young farmer, the cousin of her brother-in-law, we know how her anomie is going to end. This section of the film, set in an all-too recent 1982, is basic *torendi dorama*. The farmer even delivers speeches on the decline of the countryside and the future potential of mechanized farming. He's good and earnest and sincere---and he made me long for 1966.
Like "Roger Rabbit," "Omoide Poro-poro" pushes the envelope of animated art. But it does so in a very Japanese way. It's true inspirations are not Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny, but the introspective, reflective characters who populate the classic "I" novel. Not Walt Disney and Warner Brothers, in other words, but Naoya Shiga.
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