July 16, 2011 (Japan)
March 29, 2013 (United States)
Japan (Japanese / English)
Directed by Goro Miyazaki
Written by Hayao Miyazaki and Keiko Niwa (Based on the manga by Tetsurō Sayama and Chizuru Takahashi)
From Up On Poppy Hill continues many now-near-sacred Studio Ghibli traditions while breaking away in noteworthy ways. Its story is a place in time that is as informative as it is impeccably crafted. Blemishes are slight in this frequently blossoming drama.
If only we could receive a Studio Ghibli film every year. Last year saw the Western-tuned version of The Secret World of Arrietty and it was the leading animated film I saw in 2012; the much-lauded Japanese studio’s latest is From Up On Poppy Hill and is in a prime spot to follow suite for 2013. Set in the early 1960s in Port of Yokohama, Japan our story focuses on 16-year-old Umi. Like most of the stories Hayao Miyazaki shares our protagonist is a young woman (or older girl rather) and they are typically in an age of coming of age. Umi lost her father during the Korean War but she still raises signal flags in his ship’s honor from the pinnacle-placed boarding house where she lives with his younger siblings. Their mother is also out of the picture at the beginning of this picture, studying abroad in America. Umi herself is a high school scholar, considering prospects for her own future and expected to make breakfast and dinner for the folks at the manor up on Poppy Hill. Umi tells us in her opening narration (a first for a Ghibli film) that you can often tell the time of year by the flowers in bloom but in Yokohama its by what ships are seen passing in the harbor. There’s a maritime atmosphere present throughout most of the film and I thought of Ponyo, the last film that Hayao Miyazaki directed. Therein we also observed a child spying from a balcony into the glistening blue expanse for their patriarch at sea. While Hayao is credited to the screenplay this time around it is his son Goro Miyazaki who directs. Goro’s debut was Tales of Earthsea, one of the most overlooked Studio Ghibli films in recent years.
There’s not a shred of the fantastical in From Up On Poppy Hill (again, a first for Ghibli). It’s subject matter finds its place beside Grave of the Fireflies and Whisper of the Heart. It’s an entirely hand-crafted period piece that progresses toward two young people approaching a first love. Umi and her female classmates get involved with the renovation of the Latin Quarter, an old building on campus that houses myriad clubs and the school newspaper ran by Shun, the whisper of Umi’s heart. From Up On Poppy Hill salutes this rising generation women who men would cease to function without. The school politics govern a microcosm on the island that mirror the state of Japan as a whole at the time. This was in the year prior to Tokyo hosting the Olympic games, a time for rejuvenation and repair. There may not be bathhouses filled with spirits or cat buses bounding over the hills in this Ghibli project but there is something wonderful in observing the processes we take for granted as being household mundanity.
An upbeat and accurate soundtrack mostly helps to keep the events airy affairs. I’ve personally missed Joe Hisaishi’s work for these last few Ghibli entries (though it can be heard to full orchestrated effect in their first video game collaboration, Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch, which was also released upon us in the West this year). It becomes adequately touching in the film’s moving reveals, but earlier sometimes felt evasive, especially in a scene between Umi and Shun that would have been more powerful otherwise. Their relationship becomes surprising complex, so much to a point that I seriously speculated what I would do in their situation. This is hardly animation for children, not due to any offensive content but simply because of the experience reaching adulthood offers us all. The hand-drawn animation is as deeply vibrant as ever. A few rides into town (such as the picture above) and the clubhouse offer us the most details to marvel over. One scene during a school debate clearly demonstrated the weakness of the anime style as my imagination was lost amidst a sea of similar faces, many of which remained motionless. These issues do not amount to much in the overall view. As far as I’m concerned Studio Ghibli has yet another classic on their hands.
“It seems the whole country is eager to get rid of the old and make way for the new.”
J.S. writes about all things film over on The Film Tome. Enter the tome and you will find reviews, news, trailer analyses, lists, essays, an official podcast and more.