DIR: Goro Miyazaki • WRI: Keiko Niwa, Tetsurô Sayama, Chizuru Takahashi • PRO: Tetsurô Sayama, Toshio Suzuki, Chizuru Takahashi, Geoffrey Wexler • DOP: Atsushi Okui • ED: Takeshi Seyama • CAST: Sarah Bolger, Chris Noth, Anton Yelchin, Christina Hendricks
The view From Up on Poppy Hill is that of any typical Japanese village in the early 1960s: a close-knit, small but bustling community, the municipal space not yet sprawling into the countryside. And it is all the more picturesque for being animated in Studio Ghibli’s lush anime style. But it is the view from below, of the symbolic raising of flags for honour and loyalty, which inspires a romantic poem which drives the central relationship of the film, as well as highlighting its status as a tribute to its country’s postwar era.
From Up on Poppy Hill is the latest feature to reach our shores from the Japanese animation powerhouse which most recently gave us Arietty and Ponyo. The film introduces us to protagonist Umi as she prepares a meal for her eclectic household, before raising signal flags in honour of her father, a ship captain who perished during the Korean War. Opening scenes in which a jaunty song about breakfast and lively encounters with Umi’s housemates are juxtaposed with her lonely ritual of flag-raising, set the tone for the film’s balance of postwar optimism and sense of possibility with the lingering melancholy of absence, loss and longing.
Also established here is that Umi has a highly-disciplined and somewhat selfless routine, which is about to be majorly disrupted by two overdue forays into teenage life. One is her involvement in a student-led campaign to save the Latin Quarter, a decrepit school-run clubhouse marked for demolition which houses many dedicated and eccentric hobbyists (standouts include two panicky archaeologists and a very enthusiastic philosopher). The second is her burgeoning relationship with Shun, a writer for the school paper and a leader of the anti-demolition campaign, sparked by a poem he wrote about her daily ritual of flag-raising.
Umi’s decision to get more girls involved in the restoration and clean-up of the clubhouse, and to confront the superintendent over its demolition, leads to a joyous and even empowering conclusion. And while this storyline is probably dealt with more successfully, that is not to say the romantic element of the film utterly fails. On the contrary, the early scenes in which Umi and Shun are coyly getting to know each other feel true-to-life and enjoyably sweet. The film does a good job of depicting the non-verbal tension that exists between a new potential couple who can’t yet say the words to break it. But the film itself offers meta-commentary on the complications which arise between them, by having Shun remark, ‘it’s like a cheap melodrama.’ While the clubhouse storyline has a naturally-occurring and persuasive conflict, the corresponding tension in Umi and Shun’s relationship doesn’t bear out as convincingly, and Umi’s frustration and sadness can feel slightly over-wrought.
From Up on Poppy Hill also deals with issues of complicated parentage, which arguably arise in the film’s own production, too. Based on the manga by Chizuru Takahashi and Tetsuro Sayama, the story was adapted for the screen by Ghibli legend Hayao Miyazaki, but directed by his son Goro, also responsible for 2006’s Tales of Earthsea. This may be why the film feels a little less dynamic than we may expect from the studio, lacking the same perfect synergy of image, soundtrack, and theme that characterise previous offerings from Ghibli (although Arietty, a similarly-adapted work, did not feel quite so disjointed). Similarly, the grounding in a more realistic environment is something of a change of pace for the studio and fans expecting a similar quirky energy to its previous films may be disappointed.
Yet From Up on Poppy Hill ultimately succeeds on its own terms as a gently charming and relatable coming-of-age story, which balances its melancholy with a ‘can-do’ optimism befitting of the progressive but difficult transitional era in which it is set.
Rated PG (see IFCO website for details) 91 mins
From Up on Poppy Hill is released on 2nd August 2013