iSugio

From Up on Poppy Hill – Review

by Miguel Douglas

@isugoi

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The story is set in 1963 in Yokohama. Kokuriko Manor sits on a hill overlooking the harbour. A 16 year-old girl, Umi, lives in that house. Every morning she raises a signal flag facing the sea. The flag means “I pray for safe voyages”. A 17 year-old boy, Shun, always sees this flag from the sea as he rides a tugboat to school. Gradually the pair are drawn to each other but they are faced with a sudden trial. Even so, they keep going without running from facing the hardships of reality.

With the considerable backlash that Goro Miyazaki received from his directorial debut film Tales from Earthsea (2006), many speculated that he was simply not ready to take the helm of such a high profile film production—especially one stemming from the prestigious likes of Studio Ghibli. This notion was even expressed in his father’s disapproval, with Hayao Miyazaki stating that Goro simply wasn’t ready to be a director. Unfortunately, many suspicions were proven true when the film was released to negative fare. This led to the questioning of Ghibli’s position as one of Japan’s premier animation studios, even going as far as disappointing the author of the Earthsea novel series in which the film was based upon, writer Ursula K. Le Guin. With his attempts to recover from such critical repercussions, Goro was graciously given a chance to redeem himself with the announcement of the production of From up on Poppy Hill, a film based upon the 1980 serialized manga series Kokurikozaka kara by author Tetsuro Sayama and artist Chizuru Takahashi.

From the very outset of the film, one will easily realize that From up on Poppy Hill is not in the same whimsical temperament as past Ghibli works. There is no anthropomorphic characters, otherworldly settings, or gluttonous villains to behold within the film. This may come as a surprise to some viewers expecting the fanciful nature of past Ghibli films to fervently be on display here once again, but the film settles itself within a realistic environment that primarily touches upon the 1960’s political activism movements within Japan albeit with a much more innocent and melodramatic charm. From up on Poppy Hill is definitely more Japanese specific than any recent Ghibli work, wherein the very nature of conflict and character interaction relies mostly on the political and social climate that existed within Japan at that time in history. With this in mind, the film harkens on the nostalgic factor to a considerable degree, whether this is heard in popular songs of that era, the riotous nature of student protests, and the despairing effects that the Korean War had on Japan.

With such an enlarged focus upon the many issues surrounding Japan in the 1960’s, the film attempts to address a variety of said issues, a choice that affects the narrative of the film as a whole—and not always in a positive light. From up on Poppy Hill can’t seem to stay focused on one character or situation for too long, leaving some character development oddly unresolved and plot arcs seemingly rushed. In many respects, this is both the film’s most alluring strength and showcases its difficulty in terms of narrative structure. This conflicted nature of the film consistently arises when a variety of characters appear as superficial, non-important, and simply introduced and subsequently excused without much considerable impact on the film’s story. The structural flow of the narrative feels disjointed because of this, haphazardly relying on an abundance of farfetched narrative devices that remove the film from being conceived as believable, which is all the more prominent considering that it is a film centered on presenting realistic characters found within a genuine setting.

This is especially viewed in the relationship shared between Umi and Shun, the film’s two protagonists, which for the most part is a relationship only briefly hinted at as one with any real considerable, honest depth. The narrative plays around with a deeply enticing development that is shared between the two characters that involves their pasts, an approach that would appear to be a very risky but fresh endeavor for a Ghibli film to convey, but sadly abstains from pursuing it any further. By diminishing such an element from the story, the narrative of From up on Poppy Hill doesn’t really stretch beyond much outside a simple, yet careful tale of first time love. This would’ve worked out fine, but the film presents it in a manner that makes it appear more as an afterthought rather than a considerate contribution towards the advancement of the film’s narrative. Why focus so extensively on the plight of the school club building only to fall back upon the rather shallow relationship of Umi and Shun towards the end? How does the significance of the past really play an integral part in Umi and Shun’s relationship? The film ultimately leaps between several narrative directions, never providing much plausibility in terms of resolving them.

This is really unfortunate considering that Umi makes for a very interesting portrayal of a young female with important responsibilities to uphold to, which is a trend seen in such past Ghibli works as Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984) and Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989). With her mother constantly gone due to business trips and her father deceased, Umi is seen as a girl more mature than most of her peers, easing her way from her duties as a student to prepare the family meals at home. Ghibli films are usually associated with bringing about conflicted, strong characters that we can find admirable in some fashion, with Umi exhibiting this tradition effortlessly—even if the film doesn’t spend nearly as much time on her development as a character as it should have. The character of Shun is even more removed from the film, expressing very little in terms of personality and simply appearing as a love interest for Umi. While his shared past with Umi is pivotal to the plot of the film, there isn’t too much to derive from him as a distinguishable character worthy of being memorable. He takes a reciprocal liking to Umi, but his role in the film increasingly becomes that of a character that doesn’t exactly contribute much towards the overall narrative of the film. Given more time to elaborate on his past would’ve certainly given him more depth, in turn having him become a more realized character than even Umi, but the film refrains from doing so.

Perhaps it would be best to discuss the animation of the film, as it yet again represents Studio Ghibli’s greatest strength. From up on Poppy Hill is certainly a visually pleasing film, showcasing an abundance of beautiful ocean vistas and intricate, bustling city landscapes. The aestheticism of school clubhouse is also a highlight of the film—with its cluttered and disorderly interior filled to the brim with an excess of student extracurricular paraphernalia, it seemingly becomes a life of its own. In many ways, the school clubhouse is the most interesting element of the film because it provides the focal point in which we view the culmination of all the characters struggles—their desires, fear, and hopes. Despite these achievements though, the visual quality of the film is not nearly as strong as past Ghibli works, which is most likely due to the technical problems the film faced during 2011 Tohoku earthquake. Production of the film was affected by the rolling blackouts the country experienced after the disaster, with much of the production having to be continued in rather subpar measures. Characters don’t appear as appropriately animated as they should, lacking some of the smoothness and fluidity viewed in the animation in past works. Regardless of this issue, the film still continues in Ghibli’s longstanding tradition of having a majority of its animation being hand drawn, an approach which coincides greatly with the film’s more naturalistic scope.

From up on Poppy Hill is certainly a different approach for Studio Ghibli to take, with an overall more sensible style taking precedence here. There are no elements of fantasy to be found within the film, which may alienate some viewers wanting it to be so but also delivers a film grounded in reality—a change that Ghibli would be wise to explore in their future works. One can see that the film’s narrative isn’t nearly as compelling as it could have been—there was an substantial amount of material here they could have expand upon with ease—but it does make for an appreciable film on letting go of the past through the notion of self-discovery and embracing the uncertainty of the future. The material that is shown here can be viewed as more relatable given its tendencies to showcase real world issues alongside the genuine experiences of the characters who faced them. From up on Poppy Hill is a film that presents a more mature experience than most previous Ghibli works and offers Goro an opportunity to present himself as a sufficient director—even if he still has a considerable ways to go to catch up to his father.

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Author: Miguel Douglas

As an avid viewer of both Japanese animation and cinema for more than a decade now, Miguel is primarily concerned with establishing a critical look into both mediums as legitimate forms of artistic, cultural, and societal understanding. Never one to simply look at a film or series based solely on superficiality, Miguel has dedicated himself towards bringing awareness to Asian entertainment and its various facets.

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Comments

  • http://alualuna.wordpress.com alua

    “There is no anthropomorphic characters, otherworldly settings, or gluttonous villains to behold within the film. This may come as a surprise to some viewers expecting the fanciful nature of past Ghibli films.” – I didn’t find that so surprising. Ghibli has a number of more realistic films, I would put Only Yesterday, Ocean Waves or Whisper of the Heart in that category (even with the Baron scenes in Whisper of the Heart). Granted, these aren’t the most-watched or most-popular Studio Ghibli films.

    “Why focus so extensively on the plight of the school club building only to fall back upon the rather shallow relationship of Umi and Shun towards the end?” – I actually loved the focus on the school club building because it became a focus on the students as a group – conveying something of youth and enthusiasm that I found much more interesting than the love story and that for me, in the end, became what was at the heart of Kokuriko-zaka Kara (you can even interpret the love relationship through this youthful enthusiasm).

    “[T]here isn’t too much to derive from him as a distinguishable character worthy of being memorable.” – Agree with you there. Although both Umi and Shun are likeable, I found neither particularly memorable.

  • Miguel Douglas

    Thanks for the comments alua.

    Regarding the current nature of Studio Ghibli, Western viewership of their recent titles have certainly increased substantially, mainly because of efforts made by Disney to do so. With this in mind, one can see that more recent titles that have been pushed by Disney (and thus more popular) have been the likes of Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle, Ponyo, Arietty, etc. These have all been pretty much whimsical titles, so a little shock might be in store for those average viewers of recent Ghibli works when they watch this film, which pretty much totally removes the supernatural themes of those works and focuses more on realism.

    Which brings me to asking a question – do you feel that From Up on Poppy Hill will be appreciated by the average, Western viewer? There is a lot of stuff in the film that I personally found surprising for a Ghibli work, which I feel may surprise some viewers only familiar with recent Ghibli works.

  • Brown

    Thanks to the heart-warming and nostalgic-story itself (also that jazzy soundtrack and some Japanese oldies song like “Ue wo Muite Arukou” or “Sukiyaki” and “Sayonara no Natsu” which fit the atmosphere of the story) which makes this movie is memorable, slightly if not. I personally enjoy watching this film because of that aspects.

    “Which brings me to asking a question – do you feel that From Up on Poppy Hill will be appreciated by the average, Western viewer? There is a lot of stuff in the film that I personally found surprising for a Ghibli work, which I feel may surprise some viewers only familiar with recent Ghibli works” – I don’t know exactly (this movie is more suitable (but still enjoyable to watch by all ages) for teenagers and adults rather than kids), but at least, those who like nostalgic-story film, fans of jazz music and Kyu Sakamoto-san (his Sukiyaki song was popular and reached the top of the Billboard Hot 100 charts in 1963 in the US) may will appreciate it.

  • http://alualuna.wordpress.com alua

    That’s a tough question to ask – who is the average, Western viewer in any case? I think Kokuriko-Zaka Kara is for an older audience, not for children so much (adolescents yes). Of the older audience, I think they can be as much delighted by this film as with Spirited Away, even without any magical enchantments. I think the enthusiasm of the young students is at the heart of Kokuriko-Zaka Kara and anyone should be able to relate to that, even if the historical context will be new to most Western viewers. But it’s not so deeply historical or cultural that it becomes alienating or not understandable, rather it’ll introduce people to a Japan they weren’t quite so aware of. Older Japanese viewers might appreciate the film more (with nostalgia of their childhood days invoked) but I think Western audience can cherish it just as much.

    Although Disney and the rest are still stuck on the kiddie animations with happy ending guaranteed, I think this isn’t the case everywhere else. Japan certainly has certainly shown again and again that animations (and, by extension, anime and manga) can deal with very serious issues (from Grave of the Fireflies to Tatsumi), and other countries have taken that on too (Rita & Chico comes to mind). Sometimes I also think non-English speaking nations will welcome these kind of films more, because we are simply more open to ‘foreign’ films, e.g. while foreign films come as an afterthought at the Oscars, at film festivals like Cannes or the Berlinale they do not. And even if cinemas globally are dominated by Hollywood, I do think the average Western viewer in countries like France, Germany etc., would enjoy this film.

  • Miguel Douglas

    The American dynamics of film production is certainly an interesting one, probably more so due to the intense focus on marketing and profits than its ability to craft a successful AND smart film. Most average, Western (which I should specify leans more towards an American audience) viewers don’t mind learning about other cultures but dislike reading subtitles for various reasons. The film also raises issues of protesting and possible incest, which is kind of taboo in American cinema let alone a possible Disney endorsed release. I just don’t see this film receiving the same strength of release as say, Arriety, for example – that’s if Disney even decides to release it in theaters and not direct to DVD/Blu-ray. For example, Studio Ghibli’s Only Yesterday still hasn’t been released in the U.S. because it has “mature references” such as menstruation.

    I completely agree with you on the openness of non-English speaking audiences to appreciate these kinds of films more – I would go even further and say that issues of authentic film appreciation is mostly an American problem in general.

  • http://alualuna.wordpress.com alua

    I think with subtitling you have to make a distinction – there are, in fact, plenty of subtitling countries also in the West for whom subtitles are not off-putting per se. Of course, in some of these (e.g. Scandinavian countries) many people speak English well enough to not need the subtitles at some point anymore, but these are still places where people are raised with subtitles and don’t find them problematic at all. I myself am originally from a ‘dubbing country’ but the whole notion of ‘subtitles require too much work from the viewer’ is something that never crossed my mind until I lived in the English speaking countries.

    Average American and British viewers do of course mind subtitles, but I think we are very much taught to like or dislike these kind of things. I find it interesting that historically before there were sound films subtitles and intertitles were used in extremely limited number (like a handful per film) because the concern was that people would not be able to process them. Over time, subtitles increased in number. Conventions such as no more than 2 lines of subtitles on a screen persist, but interestingly fansubbing for East Asian films/dramas often challenges this, sometimes using 3-4 lines, or using subtitles plus additional text on top of the screen (!), raising interesting questions about how much viewers can in fact process. Fan audiences are generally grateful rather than complaining (of course, this is a very specific kind of audience).

    GKids, not Disney, has acquired the rights for Poppy Hill, both for the theatrical and home release: http://alualuna.wordpress.com/2012/06/12/anime-updates/

  • Miguel Douglas

    Thanks for the link alua – I was a little worried if Disney acquired the rights, but those worries have been put to rest.

    Subtitling is a difficult subject in America. Pretty much the only way to view recent foreign films (subtitled) of any kind is through relatively small art house theaters – unless it has significant financial backing from a major studio of some sort, but that’s extremely rare. This is truly sad because there are a lot of wonderful foreign films out there.

    Do you find that issues of subtitling is mostly an American/British phenomenon?

  • Brown

    Subtitling is a difficult subject in America. Pretty much the only way to view recent foreign films (subtitled) of any kind is through relatively small art house theaters – unless it has significant financial backing from a major studio of some sort, but that’s extremely rare. This is truly sad because there are a lot of wonderful foreign films out there.

    Do you find that issues of subtitling is mostly an American/British phenomenon?

    Maybe that’s why, in order to get more marketable and acceptable (also profitable) in Western, they decide to dub the movie rather than only subtitling it if the condition is like what you said. But it’s interesting that some of them are prefer to watch the original version rather than dubbed version.

  • http://alualuna.wordpress.com alua

    I can’t say whether the issue of subtitling is mostly a British/American phenomenon – I have only anecdotal evidence, no solid data. Although I’m in translation studies myself (I’m a PhD student), I’m not specifically in subtitling. It is an area of interest of mine, but since my current research is about something else, I haven’t done enough reading on the subject and only picked up things here and there from talking to other students, listening to the occasional lecture on the subject, etc.

    I get pretty sad when I go to art house cinemas in London and only a handful of other people are attending the screening – and it happens quite a lot. And if that is what happens in London, you can imagine what the situation is like in the rest of the country. Subtitling is a factor but, that said, I don’t think it’s the only one. Even if foreign films were dubbed, people would still opt for, say, Prometheus over Himizu (mentioning this recent example since it was what motivated the specialised UK distributor Third Window Films to suspend theatrical releases and stick to DVDs only instead).

    @Brown: If you have ever watched dubbed films and find that Brad Pitt has the voice of George Clooney who has the voice of Sean Connery (in other words – the same voice actor dubbing a number of actors in different films), you can imagine why dubbed versions can in fact loose out to subtitled ones! Never mind that another language can sound completely out of place and fake for some films/scripts.

  • Miguel Douglas

    That would be an interesting field of research for sure. Subtitling is a very controversial subject within the anime fansubbing sphere, where efforts to effectively translate from one language to another is very, very important. Some viewers will simply choose one fansub group over another concerning their ability to translate.

    I live near several art house cinemas and they do have considerable attendance during opening week for a film. After that it dwindles down considerably, but it’s nice to see that people care about the smaller films out there.

  • Ako

    I’ve just come across your site and while reading your comments, along with Alua and Brown, found them rather interesting. May I assume that you’re referring to UK and US audience most of the time? I found it rather surprising that most Western viewers [as stated] find subtitles to be a chore. This is because from Asian perspectives, we rather have the subtitles than the dubbed version. Most Asian viewers would go to great length to avoid watching anime with dubbed version as from our view, it spoils the quality of the film and at times, ‘remove’ the essence of the anime itself. As Alua stated, they at times can ‘sound completely out of place and fake’. We tend to feel that any foreign films should be in its original language and subtitles are more than enough to help us understand the films. Of course at times, there are problems of the subtitles not being good enough but some people would argue that this could easily be rectified if you know where to search for films that have good subtitles.

    As for the film itself, I thoroughly enjoy it! When I compared this to Goro’s 1st project, I found that this is way better and surprisingly enough, I don’t think that anything is missing from the film. I love the nostalgic and heartwarming feel of the film and the characters themselves are memorable. It is true that some of the characters aren’t properly developed but I feel that this is also one of the allure of the film itself. I suppose you could say that since the film itself focuses mainly on students’ life [especially those of Umi and Shun] and the problems that they faced, thus a ‘fleeting’ and somewhat casual treatment of some of the characters are in a way appropriate, contributing to a more relaxed atmosphere for the film. It doesn’t seem to be flimsy or superficial for me at all as when I watched the film, it vividly brings back my own memories of when I was in school, especially those bittersweet feelings that I’ve experienced ages ago. I believe this is because, if you truly look at the film from the eyes of a 16 year old, then you’ll see that it accurately depicts their emotions and I supposes take on life too [eventhough the setting is of a different time and place]. And I agree with Alua, this film reminds me so much of Whisper of the Heart which is again one of my favourite Studio Ghibli’s film.

    I grew up watching a lot of foreign films/ animation especially anime and almost all of Studio Ghibli’s films and I found that this film is one of the best I’ve ever seen. Initially, I wasn’t expecting much from the film when I know that Goro Miyazaki directed it but then after I’m done watching it, I found myself emotionally attached to the film.

  • Miguel Douglas

    First off, thanks for the comments Ako.

    Secondly, I think it really depends on the individual, as I have numerous Asian friends whose first language isn’t English, so they actually enjoy watching anime films/series dubbed because it’s viewed as an outlet towards understanding the language.

    As for Americans, a majority of them do not like subtitles, but it extends beyond even that. Cross-cultural references and narrative structure also factors into whether an American will want to watch and/or enjoy a foreign film. Of course, I could bring up numerous other reasons as well, but you can kind of get the picture. It can even depend on the individual in this case, but there is, without a doubt, a general consensus that most Americans do not prefer watching subtitled films – cultural and societal elements play into this, IMHO.