Goro Miyazaki, son of Studio Ghibli’s grand master Hayao Miyazaki, has been unfairly wearing the millstone of Tales Of Earthsea around his neck for over half a decade now. Earthsea was not a bad movie, but with the expectation that comes from passing the torch to a family member, coupled with Ghibli’s explosion in popularity, it was almost doomed to failure. The rebound movie. Look at it now and, really, it’s not half bad at all. A little confused at times, maybe, but it holds up in comparison to a lot of animated fantasy features. Nevertheless, it has left Goro with a rather maligned reputation. From Up On Poppy Hill should go some way to redressing that.
Quite sensibly scaling down his ambitions this time around, Goro has plumped for a far more muted, human tale. It’s about as low-key and intimate as Ghibli has ever been, focusing on a small group of characters at a particular time in recent Japanese history. Set in 1963 and based on a comic by Tetsuro Sayama and Chizuru Takahashi, it tells the tale of Umi (the latest in Ghibli’s proud tradition of thoughtful young women), a girl who, lamenting the loss of her father in the Korean war, hoists flags for the passing ships to see from her home on Poppy Hill. Unbeknown to her, her flags are seen by a young man named Shun, who is involved in a struggle to stop a local school clubhouse from being torn down in order to make way for a new-build in preparation for the 1964 Olympics.
From Up On Poppy Hill gently weaves together these two characters and their blossoming romance, as Umi becomes involved in helping Shun to save the clubhouse by giving it a good old spruce. What follows over the next 90 minutes is a sedate but beautiful paean to youth and family ties, to making new connections and remaining connected to old ones, all rendered with the dependably exquisite care that Studio Ghibli has become known for.
Some may bemoan that lack of the more fantastic elements that made the likes of Spirited Away or Howl’s Moving Castle so popular. In fact there’s no real reason you couldn’t take the script for From Up On Poppy Hill and film it live action, except that it would deny us the reflective beauty of these wonderful drawings. For those disappointed by the comparative lack of narrative ambition in this movie, I’d say take a good look at the studio’s past form; small, character-based tales like this make up about half of the movies they’ve produced, from the sweet, undervalued Whisper Of The Heart to the nostalgic wistfulness of Only Yesterday. Stories like this one are part of the studio’s DNA, and Poppy Hill is a more than respectable addition to the series.
By keeping things quiet and mannered, Goro and his team are able to focus on little details, and Poppy Hill is rich with small moments that make it all feel genuine, be it Umi deep-frying some fish for dinner or a flag fluttering in the wind. Engage with it, and this movie offers simple pleasures as deft and nuanced as anything in Ghibli’s roster.
There’s also some fun to be had too. Chiefly Poppy Hill‘s most crowd-pleasing and funny moments are generated in the school setting when the kids are working on the clubhouse. be it the different factions and their hypersensitivity for their specialist areas, or the clowning around that comes from a bunch of young people working a task together. It all rings right and true, even at its most clownish.
However, this story works best when it goes for the heart, and on that score it excels. Umi’s devotion to the memory of her father is heartbreaking. The character is sculpted so carefully that we ache for her. When she opens up to her mother and to Shun it is genuinely moving. Avoiding sentimentalism, this feels like the real deal; a commendable thing to achieve in animation. Sophisticated, complex emotional backgrounds hold their place in a story that nails a specific point in Japanese history.
Rebuilding and regrouping, Japan was on its feet and looking to the future. Poppy Hill voices a concern for how, in this process, the past can be forgotten. It is treasured here, in the memories locked in the very bricks and mortar of the clubhouse, and in the devotion Umi has to her father’s memory. Both are sacred and this film’s message belies a respectable values system. I don’t have kids, but if I ever do, I want them growing up watching movies like this one.
It may take a little while to fully coalesce into an absorbing experience – the first half hour is almost too thin and some viewers may be understandably driven to distraction – but by the final reel From Up On Poppy Hill is working its charms as well as it can muster, and that’s pretty good. It is unlikely to be remembered as a classic, and in all fairness it is not in the same league as the likes of My Neighbour Totoro, Nausicaa or Princess Mononoke, but that should by no means belittle the small wonderment achieved here. The next Goro Miyazaki feature ought to be anticipated with a lot more enthusiasm, and justifiably so.