Movie Review: From Up On Poppy Hill
Though famed directors Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata founded Studio Ghibli with their visions during the late 20th century, the first 10 years of the 21st century opened the door for younger directors to make their mark with the studio.
There was 2002’s The Cat Returns, a pseudo-sequel to 1995’s Whisper of the Heart.
2010 saw the release of the Miyazaki co-scripted, The Secret World of Arrietty, based on Mary Norton’s book, The Borrowers.
However, there was one film released between these two, that would be spoken of in hushed tones by several Ghibli fans. In 2006, the studio released Tales from Earthsea, based on the popular books by Ursula K Le Guin. When it came time to develop the film, it was decided by producer Toshio Suzuki, that the reins would be handed to another Miyazaki: Hayao’s son, Goro.
This led to some negativity between father and son, with the elder Miyazaki feeling his son did not have the necessary experience for such a task. Words were not exchanged between either during the film’s production.
Upon release, its reception was a mixed bag, with some entranced, and others who found it lacking in regards to its source material. I will admit that out of all the films produced by the studio, I still am not interested in seeing Earthsea. In some respects, it is to Studio Ghibli, what Cars is to (some) PIXAR Animation Studios’ fans.
Five years after Earthsea, the studio released From Up On Poppy Hill. Unlike the wedge between father and son from the Earthsea production, Hayao co-wrote the film’s script with Keiko Niwa (both also worked on Arrietty), and Goro returned to direct.
Unlike the fantasy world that Goro stepped into with Earthsea, Poppy Hill places its audience in our world, albeit Japan in 1963.
The main protagonist of our film is Umi Matsuzaki, a young high school girl who has also taken on the responsibility of helping take care of her family’s boarding house on a hillside in Yokohama, and looking after her siblings and Grandmother. Along with preparing morning and evening meals for the house’s tenants, Umi also has a morning ritual of her own: raising a set of ‘signal flags’ on a flagpole overlooking the town’s harbor below.
One day, one of Umi’s friends notices that someone at the school has written a poem in the school’s newspaper, about a young woman who raises signal flags on a hill. They briefly wonder who wrote the poem, when their attention is caught by the young men of a dilapedated building on school grounds called The Latin Quarter.
One person whom Umi meets here is Shun Kazama, a young man who runs the school’s newspaper out of a room in the building. In exchange for ‘help’ on an upcoming exam, Umi helps Shun prepare the next edition of the paper. While she assists him, she begins to grow curious regarding the strange building. Though dirty and largely populated by young men, it house the majority of the school’s many clubs, and those inside its walls are trying desperately to save it from demolition.
Poppy Hill is a film that falls into that category of Ghibli films that may turn away most who are more attuned to the magical films made by the studio. However, for those who love Ghibli‘s work regarding films like Whisper of the Heart or Only Yesterday, this will definitely seem like putting on a pair of comfortable shoes.
That could also be a good and a bad thing too. Watching the film, I was surprised how many little moments in the film made me think, “I’ve seen a situation like that in (insert Studio Ghibli film here).”
Of importance to the film’s theme, is not forgetting your past, as you move forward. The film is sandwiched between the aftermath of World War II, and the 1964 Olympic Games, which were held in Tokyo. In our modern world, images of Japan largely are of neon-lit, Metropolitan cities. This film shows us a time before that, with Yokohama’s buildings seeming simple, and not so grandiose. One scene even had me wondering how long many of those wooden structures lasted, before they were torn down in the name of progress.
The Latin Quarter becomes an unofficial symbol of an object caught in the crosshairs of the old and new. In a sense, the place almost feels like a combination of Animal House’s’ Frat house, and the bathhouse from Spirited Away. It’s an impressive structure, but definitely feels like the kind of place that multiple young men would inhabit, given its unclean interior. For this review, I’ve refrained from showing any key screenshots of the structure, as it would detract from experiencing it with your own eyes when it’s revealed on screen.
Character-wise, there are plenty of things that one can expect when they see Umi and Shun, and some things one might not expect. There are quite a number of supporting characters, not to mention numerous members of The Latin Quarter, several of which seem to have been inserted purely for comic relief.
The film is not bad for Goro Miyazaki’s sophomore effort, though online there seem to be a few debates here and there over which Miyazaki is to be credited for the film: Goro for his directing, or Hayao for his co-scripting. I do wonder if Goro is a lover of fading out on a scene. I think there are more fade-outs in Poppy Hill than any other production from the studio’s catalogue.
Poppy Hill also marks the first distribution of a Ghibli film in the USA, that isn’t under Walt Disney Pictures (though Disney is handling international distribution in some markets). Distribution of the film and future Ghibli releases, are being handled through GKids. GKids has been instrumental in recent years, for releasing several foreign animated releases into theaters, including Oscar nominees The Secret of Kells, and A Cat in Paris.
In the end, From Up On Poppy Hill is a wonderful time capsule of a film, capturing youths in Japan at a cross roads in time. Call it blasphemous, but to me, it is not too dissimilar to George Lucas’ American Graffiti, an American film set in 1962, showing American teenagers also at a moment in time betwixt past and future.
“Destroy the old, and you destroy our memory of the past. Don’t you care about the people who lived and died before us? There’s no future for people who worship the future, and forget the past” – Shun Kazama
*Special Thanks to Eric Prahl, who helped make this review possible.