Most movies from Studio Ghibli – Japan’s leading animation studio – cover fantastical, magical, or mythical elements. However, there are a few movies in their canon that instead tell tales set in a real time and place, with more down to earth plots and characters. With a swinging 60s vibe and soft approach romance, From Up On Poppy Hill fits firmly into this category.
Directed by Gorō Miyazaki (son of internationally renowned Hayao Miyazaki) and adapted from a manga by Tetsurô Sayama, From Up On Poppy Hill is set in Japan shaking loose the concrete shoes of World War II and preparing for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Unlike the cloying sloth that was Tales From Earthsea (Gorō Miyazaki’s badly received debut feature) From Up On Poppy Hill bubbles with high tempo music and bright colours flap-like signal flags across the screen.
Atop the eponymous hill lives high school student Umi Matsuzaki. She is cut from the usual Ghibli cloth of young women who work hard for everyone else whilst their own desires take a back seat. Umi feeds and cleans up after her siblings and lodgers at the old boarding house where she lives, whilst never forgetting to use her garden flagpole to fly semaphore flags in memory of her father, who perished in the war. Her complicated family history slowly unfurls as she gets to know fellow student, Shun Kazama: a confident boy who is fighting to save the boys rickety old clubhouse set for demolition.
There is much to like in this low key Ghibli movie. On a surface level the burgeoning romance between Umi and Shun is lacking in melodrama but full of warmth and heart. His enthusiasm for rescuing the clubhouse is infectious enough to cause her to break out of her chore cycle, and her help is key to invigorating the somewhat ramshackle boys. The movie is at its best when the clamouring of high schoolers are barrelling around making grandiose statements, convinced of their own positive future in this newly enthusiastic Japan.
A major theme running through the movie is one of rebirth, whilst respecting the past. The impending destruction of the clubhouse (barely held together by makeshift repairs) by crusty old adults is synonymous with Japan’s desire to clean house of their horrific recent past. Similarly, the battle by the students to blow out the cobwebs and save their precious building heralds heated student debates about moving forward whilst also honouring history.
A trope of Japanese animation not often seen in western efforts is that of confused family lineage. When Umi and Shun realise they both own the same photo that casts doubt as to their own backstory, their burgeoning romance is thrown into disarray. Arguably the amount of time spent unravelling the mystery of this (including a dramatic last Act dash to track down an exposition dump of a character) comes at the cost of building up the emotion of it. When Umi breaks down into uncontrollable sobbing this is all the more surprising due to both her and Shun mostly locking down their feelings for most of the movie.
The more subtle approach of young love through repression and caution is something that may or may not appeal to western viewers more accustomed to grandiose Big Emotion declarations. This stoicism makes From Up On Poppy Hill a love story that seems to forget the love, but equally makes it exactly the kind of movie that you have to go to Studio Ghibli to enjoy because no-one else would take such a low key approach. From Up On Poppy Hill isn’t going to be the stand out Ghibli movie that will get all the accolades, but with it Miyazaki Jnr respected the studio’s past whilst breathing some fresh air into their future. For those who want to dig a bit deeper into the Ghibli back catalogue, this is a treat.
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