From Up on Poppy Hill – Review
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.
Author: Miguel Douglas
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