While I’ve seen almost every Studio Ghibli film—you know, the animation studio that brought you films like Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle—I never got around to watching From Up on Poppy Hill. It’s the most recent release and, more importantly, Hayao Miyazaki’s son, Goro Miyazaki, directed the film.
Stacking Goro Miyazaki’s film against his father’s repertoire is daunting. After all, Hayao Miyazaki directed nostalgic treasures like My Neighbor Totoro and Princess Mononoke. Miyazaki senior is well known, well liked, and respected worldwide. His films are nearly indescribable, flawlessly combining both the whimsy of childhood with something more mature and dark, juxtaposing both extremes in beautiful, moving ways.
Goro Miyazaki’s past work only includes Tales from Earthsea, an adaptation of Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea book series. The film was met with mixed reviews and the he wound up receiving Japan’s version of the Razzie awards for both Worst Director and Worst Film. Let’s see how the fared this time, shall we?
The plot is fairly straightforward, though there are hiccups in the story that allow for tense situations. From Up on Poppy Hill takes place in the coastal city of Yokohama, Japan. The year is 1963 and our main character is Umi, a high school-aged girl who lives in a boarding house with her siblings and other tenants. As the oldest daughter, she’s on top of her responsibilities, diligent and prompt. Sometimes I even got a bit irritated about how responsible she was, because when I was sixteen, I would’ve never been able to cook for seven to eight people everyday for every meal.
Umi’s high school is set on demolishing the Quartier Latin, an old, ramshackle building that houses all the school’s clubs. Shun, the other main character, runs the newspaper, and he’s intent on saving the place due to tradition and preservation. Umi and Shun meet—there’s the typical negative first impressions before cooperation turns their uneasy friendship into attraction.
Of course, what’s a love story without some conflict? Due to some strange events surrounding Shun’s birth and subsequent rearing, he’s led to believe that he and Umi may actually be related—as half-brother and half-sister! I wasn’t expecting the incest angle, especially for a children’s movie, but I think the director handled the subject matter very well. It offered a glimpse of what incestual relationships might be like, especially for young teenagers fighting against their emotions. There was a purity to it that allowed the taboo to fall into the background: we, the audience, really felt for the main characters.
With the main mystery of Shun and Umi’s (deceased) father and their possible relation at hand, saving Quartier Latin from bureaucratic dismantling might have paled in comparison. However, there is a balance between the two that kept the plot from tipping too far in one direction or the other. I was entertained throughout the film, and like all Studio Ghibli films, there’s a happy ending that made me feel charmed and uplifted.
The animation and the color palette of the film are well done, but they unfortunately seem flat when compared to the artistic elegance of the other Studio Ghibli films. There is no remarkable vibrancy that is characteristic to Miyazaki senior’s films—ultimately, that is where Goro Miyazaki falls.
I watched From Up on Poppy Hill in its original Japanese voiceovers with English subtitles. I would suggest any viewer to do the same, though the English dub is not yet available. The voice actors for the latter are impressive, namely Sarah Bolger (of The Tudors and Once Upon a Time fame), Anton Yelchin, Gillian Anderson, Jamie Lee Curtis, and Christina Hendricks among others. Keep your eyes out for the English version on March 29!
Ultimately, From Up on Poppy Hill has a flavor of childish nonchalance and yet it is always anchored down (in a good way!) by serious subject matters, following a tradition of Studio Ghibli’s reputation for thematic elements like youth, innocence, growth, and maturity. It’s the perfect sort of film when you need something rather light but not too comedic—an almost introspective sort of work that makes you think but not too much. That sort of balance is hard to achieve, and Goro Miyazaki accomplished it surprisingly well for his second directed film. Guess he leaned a lot from his first one, huh?
I’d watch From Up on Poppy Hill again. But then, I always re-watch Studio Ghibli films. They’re just that good.