Directed by Goro Miyazaki
Written by Hayao Miyazaki & Tetsuro Sayama
It is refreshing to see when a series so well known for its forays into the wonderfully magic and fantastic decides to explore the more grounded and realistic stories. Studio Ghibli, for sure, has reached for these stories before, and often produced marvelous films as a result. Just look at Grave of the Fireflies or Only Yesterday (to name a few). But I would still, at this point in the marathon and with knowledge of the public perception of the animation studio, say that Studio Ghibli is more well known for their fantasy adventure films and world building, often spearheaded by Hayao Miyazaki. Miyazaki’s impact cannot go unnoticed or unmentioned, though his counterpart, Isao Takahata, has shown me greatness can be found in many ways within animation. Hayao’s son, Goro, has directed one other film in this marathon to this point, and it was my least favorite despite signs of potential, Tales from Earthsea. Now Goro finds himself helming a much more grounded project than Tales from Earthsea.
Umi Matsuzaki is a strong willed, hard working girl in a harbor town in Japan just before the 1964 Tokyo Olympic games. Each morning she rises to raise signal flags, something she has done since she was a little girl and her sailor father would go out to sea. Her father lost his life in the Korean War however, and with her mother studying abroad in America, Umi is left to maintain the household and its boarders, including a doctor and a painter. Meanwhile, at school, Umi encounters a boy named Shun Kazama, with whom she begins to spend a lot of time with while the two use the school newsletter to spread word about restoring the broken down clubhouse, or Latin Quarter, before the school board votes to demolish it for a more modern building prior to the Olympiad. Eventually Umi and Shun’s past catches up with them, and they learn more about where each of them came from.
To begin with, From Up on Poppy Hill is a much better effort than Tales from Earthsea, though I don’t necessarily have glowing things to report in concerning From Up on Poppy Hill. The best thing I could say about the film is simply that it is a standard, bland, albeit pleasant film with themes of hard work, team work, and nostalgia at play which all feed into a rather soap opera-y drama. At one point during the film, Shun even goes so far as to call the developments in the narrative a “cheap melodrama”, and part of me wishes he wouldn’t have used such a meta phrase because the plotting behind the drama which is raised in this story is exactly that, a cheap melodrama with too many twists and turns to make the final outcome of the story rewarding or fulfilling.
The animation of the film is clean and pretty hand drawn animation, though there is nothing which really separates it from anything else I’ve seen. It’s not noteworthy. I was interested in the concept of the school clubhouse, a giant old building where all the school’s clubs have met through the years. But, even set in 1960 Japan, it felt a little off-putting that all the clubs consisted of boys to the point that even Umi’s presence in the clubhouse was startling to the boys. The girls only manage to show up to help clean. This cancels out any goodwill established by the hard work ethic and responsibility bestowed upon Umi at the household with both parents out of the picture.
I find it interesting that this marks at least the third time a major part of a Ghibli film consists of cleaning things up. There is the monster in Spirited Away, then the castle in Howl’s Moving Castle, and now the clubhouse in From Up on Poppy Hill. I cannot say for certain what the purpose of this theme is, especially as it pertains to each of these three films, but being able to see all these films so close to one another, there is some untold joy in being able to notice little things like this. And there is definitely something cathartic about seeing everything get cleaned up, and yes, I recognize this as my own strange desire for the order of things. I’m not a messy person, generally.
I still go back to the line “cheap melodrama” when thinking about From Up on Poppy Hill, though. It’s just completely lacking in the development of the drama between characters. The restoration of the clubhouse is a nice backdrop, as is the harbor town and the connection Umi has with her father, but the Shun character is never mysterious enough, or even for that matter desirable enough to warrant an interesting relationship with Umi beyond the twists and turns of their past, which as I said amount to the aforementioned “cheap melodrama”. It’s a fine film, but it doesn’t compare favorably with most of the Studio Ghibli canon I’ve explored to this point.