From Up on Poppy Hill (2011) [GKids]

Author: Nicholas Driscoll
May 23, 2013
Note: review may contain spoilers

While Ghibli Studios is well-known for their fantasy movies (both gentle, such as My Neighbor Totoro, and more epic in scope, such as Princess Mononoke), they have also produced quite a library of that most-rare form of animated films—realistic, dramatic movies. (Japan does have a significant number of “realistic” animated television series, though even there most of the “realistic” programs are only realistic insofar as they are set in the real world without fantastic elements—and even in Japan, animated movie dramas are relatively rare.) While Hayao Miyazaki never has directed these dramas (until 2013’s Kaze Tachinu), he usually has his hand in them one way or another, and his fellow staff have produced a number of real gems—from the heart-wrenching Grave of the Fireflies (1988), to the wistful Only Yesterday (1991), to the romantic The Ocean Waves and Whisper of the Heart (1995). From Up on Poppy Hill falls into the latter category, having perhaps most in common with Whisper of the Heart, in that both movies were based on Japanese girls comics (or shojo manga). However, the 2011 film is a period piece, and is the sophomore effort from director Goro Miyazaki—which, after his disappointing Tales of Earthsea (2006), might have some fans grumbling. Thankfully, for the most part, From Up on Poppy Hill shines.

The story centers around young Umi Matsuzaki, a junior high girl in the early 1960s who is now in charge of maintaining the family inn while her mother studies abroad in the United States. Umi is hard-working, intelligent—and, though she suppresses her feelings through the balm of hard work, she misses her father tremendously. Mr. Matsuzaki was lost at sea during the Korean War, and yet she sustains hope for his return, and raises signal flags every morning in hopes of guiding him home. At school, meanwhile, many of the schoolboys are arguing vivaciously about the future of their school clubhouse, dubbed the Latin Quarter—an ancient rickety mess of a building stuffed with scads of accumulated projects, history, and outright garbage. When a poem appears in the school newspaper responding to Umi’s daily flag messages, Umi suspects Shun Kazama, a boisterous and industrious student of the same age working on the school newspaper. Through him, she is caught up in a concerted effort to rescue the clubhouse from imminent destruction due to attempts in Tokyo to gussy up the scenery for the upcoming Summer Olympics. However, as Shun and Umi grow closer, secrets hidden in their families’ pasts are slowly revealed, and may doom their relationship forever.

Like most shojo manga, a relationship is central to the narrative, and thus Umi and Shun must anchor the story. Like in many stories, Umi is essentially an orphan for most of the movie; here, though, the loss of her father is not simply a ploy to play on audience heart-strings—it is important for the plot, and a window into Umi’s soul and her deepest desires. The loss of her father drives Umi to cling to the past, and ultimately to move towards the future as well as her flags connect her to Shun. In fact, she thinks that Shun was sent to her by her dead father as an answer to her daily messages, and it is partially through Shun that she can move forward with her life, stretching herself in new ways as she grows more involved with the Latin Quarter. So, too, through Shun her flag messages come alive, in that Shun can reply to them, and her life can be lived in communication, not just in an unfulfilled pining for her father’s return.

Shun and his mission to save the Latin Quarter mirrors Umi’s tension between the past and the future. Shun is clutching the past, wishing to save the ancient clubhouse and its traditions, but he and his friends try to do so through an extensive renovation project, which brings in a lot of fresh blood in the form of an army of girls who come to help clean and fix the place—and one gets the impression that girls had never ventured into the building before. It is only through drastic change that the old can be saved and truly appreciated for the value it holds.

Still, the main story does become somewhat overwrought with an unlikely plot twist towards the middle of the film; even Shun exclaims how he feels he is in the middle of a bad melodrama. (SPOILERS) Basically, Shun discovers that he is Umi’s brother, and that Umi’s father had given him up to Mr. Kazama because Umi’s mother felt that she could not take care of him. Thus, their blooming romance (which never quite seems to get off the ground anyway—another staple of much shojo manga) seems impossible—until the inevitable reveal that Umi’s father merely adopted Shun as a baby as a way to protect him from a harsh future in an orphanage, and then passed him along to a childless couple. This is revealed by Umi’s mother late in the film, and is suitably emotional; the events, while highly melodramatic, do also play into the theme of the film, exploring the tensions of the past and their reverberating effects on the present, and even (in a sense) validating Umi’s impression that Shun is a message from her father, since her father was the one to rescue Shun. If it wasn’t for her father’s actions, Shun and Umi likely would never have met. Still, it seems strange that apparently Umi’s father never really explained what had happened to Shun’s biological parents when he passes along Shun to Kazama. Also, in an odd narrative misstep, after Mrs. Matsuzaki reveals the truth to Umi, we never see Umi or anyone relate what had really happened to Shun. Instead, at the very end of the film, Umi and Shun rush to meet someone who knew their respective fathers so they can learn about their heritage, and Shun suddenly just knows about his real father. Presumably Umi told him off screen, but we never get to see his reaction, which is surprising, and disappointing, because a major character point for him concerned his confused feelings about his parentage. Even though we do get a speech from a ship captain who knew Shun’s biological father, I wanted to see Shun’s reaction, hear Shun’s thoughts, because he is the one we’ve been growing to care about over the previous 90 minutes. It just seemed like a missed opportunity, and Shun’s character arc feels incomplete at the end as a result. (END SPOILERS)

Balancing out the emotional ebbs and tides of Umi and Shun, the supporting cast is an electric crowd that fill the proceedings with fun. Along with Umi and Shun, there are two Matsuzaki siblings, Sora and Riku [1] —Sora being a silly romantic, and Riku a food-munching machine. Sachiko, one of those living in Umi’s inn, is a clueless artistic type who nevertheless has a keen eye; and the clubhouse is overflowing with rowdy and ridiculous boys, bumbling and fumbling and bringing the film-scape to life. My favorite supporting character might be the preposterous wannabe philosopher boy, who waxes eloquent when he’s not simply gawping like a buffoon at the world changing around him.

Of course, the most colorful characters still need an environment in which to live, and here is where From Up on Poppy Hill shines brightest, with palpable nostalgia seeping through the screen as period vehicles chug and chuff, vividly painted quaint city landscapes shine with color, and everyday activities are rendered in loving exactness. There are few cartoons that will take the time to render the process of making rice in 1960s Japan, let alone showing how stencils are created for reproducing tests. From Up on Poppy Hill reproduces all of these in its good-natured, unhurried narrative. The simple everyday details of everyday life are created with warmth and care—these were some of the things I loved most about Whisper of the Heart (1995), and I love them here as well.

For my viewing, I got to see GKids' version of the film, with an English dub cast, and the film had serviceable performances, though little sticks out to me as excellent or awful in retrospect. Umi was performed by Sarah Bolger (The Spiderwick Chronicles), who shows a fair range of emotion, and convincingly portrays the part. Anton Yelchin (who played Chekov in the new Star Trek movies—I was shocked when I found this out!) gives a largely understated performance for Shun, imbuing his voice with soft tenderness, yet as I look back at the film from my initial viewing, his performance seems largely forgettable. Some of the supporting cast are more memorable, such as Ron Howard (!) as the wannabe philosopher, and Beau Bridges as Chairman Tokumura, the man in responsible for the fate of the Latin Quarter. The takeaway, then, is that no one turned in an actively awful performance, minus a few minor stumbles here and there.

The soundtrack by Satoshi Takebe (his first Ghibli soundtrack—fans in America may know him best from his work on the anime series Saiyuki) is lively and, indeed, nostalgic; the hopping instrumentals feel right for the historical theme, and burst with bubbling infectiousness. The highlight of the soundtrack for me, though, was the inclusion of Ue o Muite Arukou by Kyu Sakamoto, better known as Sukiyaki in the States. That song was a massive international hit back in 1963, and even my dad knows it; I actually memorized the lyrics earlier this year on a whim. The song was likely included to underscore the feeling of international success and hope for Japan, tying into the coming of the Summer Olympics to Japan. For me, it was just a huge treat.

After Tales of Earthsea (2006), I was doubtful that Goro Miyazaki should be directing animated movies, but this time (again working with a script by his father and Keiko Niwa, who also collaborated on the script for The Secret World of Arrietty) he has come up with a real charmer of a film. The movie functions as a celebration of sweet memories while pointing towards a hopeful future, and the sweetness of the characters and music and a few thoughtful themes help bolster the film’s success, despite a somewhat clichéd plot, and animation that doesn’t quite live up to the grandeur from some previous Ghibli works. Also, I love how Ghibli, when it does go ahead and adapt a manga, does not go for popular comics, but seems instead to delight in finding more obscure works and giving them a chance to shine. While this movie did not grab me quite as much as The Secret World of Arrietty (2010) did, there is much to enjoy nevertheless, especially for those with an appreciation for slower, more touching fare. I just really hope the next Ghibli films do not take so long before they come to America!

 The Matsuzaki siblings’ names mean “sea” (umi), “sky” (sora), and “land” (riku), and the writers seem to have tried to make the characters’ names reflect something of their personalities or back stories. Umi is tied to the sea because she is waiting for her father to return, and her story is emotional, driven by the waves. Sora is a bit of an airhead, filled with dreams and, as mentioned in the review, her head among the clouds. Riku is not developed enough in the movie to really reflect the “land.” His only characteristic is his appetite.