I was inevitably skeptical after seeing Tales from Earthsea. Going in the high-fantasy route might not work well for Goro Miyazaki. In this anime, he went in a different direction by making down to earth, drama anime. I am glad to say that it was the right choice.
Recovering from crisis
From Up on Poppy Hill set in the post-world war II Japan. It was evident that everyone was still coping with the loss. In fact, the theme of this anime about cherishing one’s own origin fit nicely into that era. I was under the impression that the same theme also worked well with the present day Japan which was suffering from economic difficulties and nuclear crisis. On smaller scale, Umi and Shun similarly suffered from the consequences of war as they both lost their fathers in that event. As the relationship between Umi and Shun grew, their intertwined past started to unfold.
Not so interesting people in a very interesting background
Why did I get the feeling that I had seen Umi and Shun before? That’s because I have seen them in other Ghibli films, or other romantic stories for that matter. The characters in ‘From Up on Poppy Hill’ were nothing special; typical high school protagonists. Instead, the main attraction of this anime was the well-portrayed setting; Umi’s house, market, harbor, school (especially the old clubhouse) and Tokyo. The world was such a beautiful place, like what people imagine when thinking about their sweet childhood hometown. The anime did a great job infusing every scene with feelings and magic. To my surprise, the clubhouse itself (not the people) left me longing to visit it even long after the show ended.
The journey that was cut short
At the conclusion of most Ghibli films, I always found myself in a strange place that I never thought I would be back when the film started. Just think about fantasy titles like Laputa, Princess Mononoke or Howl’s Moving Castle. Think about the journey those films gave you. Even the more grounded films like Only Yesterday, Ocean Waves and Whisper of the Heart, they presented incredible personal and interpersonal journey. Taeko was a completely transformed person in the end of Only Yesterday and her life took a sharp turn by moving to the farmhouse. In Ocean Waves, we watched Taku and Rikako’s relationship went uphill, downhill, apparently dissolved and then miraculously reunited again at the train platform in the end. And Shizuku…oh, I could go on and on about her character arch. So let’s just say that in the beginning of Whisper of the Heart, she’s an average, aimless school girl. But by the end, she was an inspired, immensely matured budding writer, and she got a marriage proposal!
Before I stray too far, let’s take a look back at From up on Poppy Hill. There were three main subplots in this anime.
- The clubhouse anti-demolition campaign; this one tried to imply the importance of preserving and cherishing the past. It was also a good opportunity to showcase the idealistic/intelligent students back in the 60s, who probably no longer exist nowadays. (don’t get me started on how shallow and spoiled children are right now)
- The melodramatic love story…between siblings? I was interested! But then they solved it quickly enough. They didn’t dare letting the viewers dwell on that for even15 minutes. Come on! What’s wrong with incest anyway?
- Uncovering the complicated truth about the two protagonists’ parents; this storyline could be considered part of the love story mentioned above because it served as only mild obstacle to Umi and Shun’s relationship. Again, it was swiftly solved by having Umi’s mother came back from USA.
Unlike other Ghibli films, none of the subplots in this anime was taken seriously or far enough to make a complete and satisfying arch. They were actually on the verge of surging up to greatness but then each storyline was quickly solved. It was as if the filmmakers were afraid of taking risks, afraid to take the viewers too deep into the unfamiliar territory. In the end, From up on Poppy Hill could not deliver much impact.
For the sake of argument, it was also possible that the filmmakers did not intend to make a story-driven movie to begin with. Maybe, they just wanted to make small down-to-earth movie that let the viewers experience the sweet nostalgic atmosphere of childhood and Japan in the 60s, to remind us of the past. On that ground, I think the movie did a great job. Despite its utter lack of fantasy elements, I could feel the magic in world portrayed in this movie; the same kind of magic I felt when I looked at old family photo album.
Conclusion and the impact to Ghibli films
Despite my initial negative observation, From Up on Popppy Hill was an all-round solid film. It did not have the unsettling hesitation or strained feeling that I felt when watching Tales from Earthsea. I think it’s a mistake to try to imitate Hayao Miyazaki’s style. Compared to that movie, From Up on Poppy Hill was a big improvement and fitted better into the Ghibli films hirachy. From Up on Poppy Hill took a different direction and succeeded. After watching this anime, I am very optimistic about the future of Studio Ghibli.
Title: From Up on Poppy Hill
Genre: drama, romance
Released date: July 16, 2011
Running Time: 91 minutes
Director: Gorō Miyazaki
Animated by: Studio Ghibli