Studio Ghibli continues to overwhelm. From Up on Poppy Hill is a masterpiece of animation from director Goro Miyazaki, and it gives me great confidence that he will someday be able to carry on the legacy of his famous father Hayao, who co-wrote this Tetsurō Sayama-adapted screenplay with Keiko Niwa and was responsible for films such as Kiki’s Delivery Service and Porco Rosso.
An artistically and emotionally beautiful period piece set in an early-1960s Yokohama, the film is incredibly moving both as a love story and as an ode to historical preservation and is easily one of the most spectacular successes I’ve witnessed in years.
In some places, we are told as the film opens, one can tell what time of year it is by what flowers are in bloom. In Yokohama, this principle instead applies to boats, and we are presented with a lovely shot of an active harbor as the rest of Japan busily prepares for the 1964 Summer Olympics. Where’s a great place to watch the boats? Make a guess. Umi, whose mother studies in America and whose father has passed away, lives in a boarding house with her grandmother, her younger siblings Sora and Riku (don’t even say it), and a lively group of other residents. As is to be expected from Studio Ghibli’s noteworthy heroines, Umi is a sweet-natured girl with a bit of an edge, a strong work ethic, and a dutiful interest in her “family’s” well-being, which includes tasks such as cooking and doing laundry for the other boarders. She also raises signal flags for harboring boats.
As a boat docks, a boy detaches a bicycle; set to music that sounds rather French (see also Kiki, above), the city of Yokohama is detailed beautifully enough to live in even while it’s busy modernizing, with bikes and boats and trains that evoke the present day. After she arrives at school, Umi discovers a pleasant surprise in her morning news: someone’s been receiving her signals. But who is it?
Precious little time is given to dwell on this question before a bunch of boys gather around, unfolding giant scrolls and showcasing one boy doing a daredevil’s jump off of the school roof into a pool. That’s quite an introduction. The music abruptly picks up as though a crowd song is about to break out, which actually ends up happening later in the film but is spared from being cheesy due to its rather depressing lyrics. Umi is ready to pull the boy out, at least until other people begin taking pictures and sarcastically calling the two “lovebirds.”
The boys are rallying for the support they need to prevent their campus clubhouse, the Latin Quarter, from being torn down. The building is dilapidated and in major need of a restoration before it can frankly look like much more than a distraction. At the same time, in the context of this being an animated film, someone had to draw all of this and simulate the lighting (subdued as it is), which looks absolutely incredible and is still colorful even in the darkness.
The clubhouse is a technical wonder to behold, with rope-and-pulley systems running up and down, transporting packages throughout the building. There are plenty of groups that meet and activities that take place here: one boy has little respect for the smugness he blames on the archaeology club. He isn’t lying, though in fairness the members are deeply passionate about their studies. Another boy has a hammy monologue about philosophy and the meaning of life. A chemist causes a gas explosion, thankfully without serious injuries. There’s even a radio club, as well as an area that serves the Latin Quarter Weekly publication. A small side plot involving the making of practice physics exams gives me fond memories of when I used to create study guides for my friends in high school, making for scenes that I definitely enjoyed seeing on a personal level.
Some of the boys seem maladjusted, though–while one offers to escort a girl to the clubhouse door so she won’t be ambushed by the unusual if harmless resident philosopher, another boy says of a character, “Check it out! X chromosome!” Clearly these people could use additional feminine company in their lives, and thankfully it eventually comes in force. Even still, these people are certainly some of the goofier elements in an otherwise lovingly sedate movie.
As diligent as ever, Umi continues to manage her cooking chores alongside her studies, and she later has another happenstance encounter with Shun. She is smitten, but he thankfully is wonderful enough towards her to offer a ride to the bottom of a steep hill on his bicycle. These moments together are as well-meaning as could be asked for, and they’re adorably suspenseful. These and the settings make this movie enchanting in a way that other stories that are filled with magic sometimes fail at. This is especially telling in a movie that lacks overt supernatural elements and is in my opinion better for it. The rare and perhaps lone exception, itself at most an implication, is thoroughly touching.
Goro Miyazaki carries on a deservingly famous name, but while his father certainly knows how to direct a movie, some of his works tend to become rather weird at times, especially the otherwise laudable Spirited Away. Poppy Hill in comparison is a very believable work of art, with story themes that match the maturity of the film’s atmosphere to the point of not always being accessible for younger viewers. The movie is tactful enough to keep its content clean even in areas of highly sensitive subject matter (hell-bent is the closest the dialogue comes to using questionable language), but this is a family film I believe parents really should watch together with their children, for the simple reason that the latter might otherwise become lost or confused.
Another character, who does gorgeous paintings, thinks a boat might be answering Umi’s flags. The poor girl rushes to higher ground and quickly loses her breath. This is before she even gets to her school and must rush to class. Later, a school-wide debate begins over whether to preserve the Latin Quarter. One boy wants a new student center put in its place, while other people argue over whether to preserve tradition or to embrace modernity. Likewise the forthcoming Tokyo Olympics, which could easily have been left as an afterthought in a less capable screenplay, are heavily anticipated as being a showcase for Japan’s new democracy.
Ever since the close of World War II, Japan has tried to forge a new identity for itself, causing difficulties among people who want to cherish the old ways and people who want to leave a sometimes unsavory past behind. Indeed, in terms of its setting, From Up on Poppy Hill feels like a spiritual follow-up to Grave of the Fireflies, featuring a reborn nation that is coming of age at the same time as many of the film’s characters are. One character is spoken of as losing a family in Nagasaki, though the movie thankfully avoids unpleasant detail.
Most of the debate crowd, consisting of dozens of exceptionally drawn characters, wants the old building torn down, but some of the boys rush the stage and threaten to turn the conflict openly hostile. Umi, meanwhile, wants to give the Quarter a chance and to see it cleaned up. She’s an incredibly hardworking girl, and all her efforts definitely pay off: with the girls and boys later having individual dinners, Umi proves herself a little angel while carrying numerous heavy soup platters. Likable female leads who establish their strength with diligence instead of resorting to violence appear to be a Studio Ghibli tradition, and this girl is a blessing to witness.
Umi begins speaking of her past at length, explaining how her parents met, what her grandparents were like, who taught her to use signal flags, and more of why they are important. The amount of detail is remarkable, and it does more than enough to help the movie establish credibility for its overall love of history. Umi shows Shun a photo of her father, handsome in uniform, but something is wrong.
For the time being, the clubhouse is in dire need of a restoration, and it finally gets the treatment it long needed: dozens of girls, with facial masks, have come to clean the clubhouse. The boys only need a little coaxing to get involved, and there’s an upbeat cleaning montage. Several students hold up a ladder so one boy can dust the chandeliers. Thankfully he doesn’t scare easily. The movie takes the opportunity to establish an understated romance between Umi and Shun, which consists a little too often of her staring at him, but there’s plenty of personality and character compatibility to give the relationship a sturdier foundation. Many other characters also see what’s developing.
Shun also gets his own developing scenes. Some of these sad but heartfelt moments depict him as an infant, complete with a woman shown breastfeeding the boy. It’s a beautiful sight depicted without shame. Unfortunately for him and for Umi, this scene sets up a crucial and child-unfriendly plot twist that serves as one of the film’s twin conflicts. After being given a horribly distressing piece of information, Umi’s outlook is shattered; the news affects not only her well-being but that of the people around her, interfering with the quality of her work. While she’s in her bed, a wonderfully rendered yet cruelly unreachable dream sequence (not involving Shun) has her crying in her sleep. I couldn’t blame her if I tried.
As the attractive renovation of the Latin Quarter continues, opposition to its removal grows day by day and is further encouraged by the mock exams some students have been helping assemble. The effort is still not enough, however, and Shun wants to go to Tokyo to make his case. One other boy agrees–on the condition their “goddess of good luck” is willing to join them.
The city of Tokyo is making a huge push to beautify itself for the forthcoming Games, and it’s clearly working, even as personal touches such as marketplaces in alleys accompany the obvious Olympics emphasis. Umi and the others are forced to wait for the meeting they want, and the movie’s pacing intentionally slows to a crawl. It’s oddly calming to watch these students sit idly outside an office. When they finally get the audience they seek, one of his questions is of a certain character’s past. That character is shown on a supply ship, and mournful piano music plays as the ship hits a mine, causing an explosion to fill the screen.
Tokyo is shown to be lovely at night; in desperation, Umi and Shun push aside their personal issues and discuss their plans following graduation. They both have wonderful ideas. They talk about the poem from the beginning of the film, about the flags, and about their feelings for one another, made difficult and confusing due to the nature of the premise. In a story that again lacks magical overtones, there is a beautiful hint of an influence from beyond this world that is portrayed with such subtlety that it may indeed be just wishful thinking.
Umi’s mother actually returns from her studies and spends the rest of the film serving as a strong emotional anchor for the girl. The movie continually proves just how “adult” its story can be, and after the woman explains more of Shun’s past, she questions the reason for Umi’s interest. The girl breaks down in tears. Her mother is instantly made aware of Umi’s deepest feelings, without a word, and the sight of the two hugging is simply perfect. Also, the voice acting here is exceptional; it’s rare that I see crying on film that sounds this authentic instead of being overblown.
Back at the clubhouse, the now completed work looks totally amazing, and Shun is given a message that greatly accelerates this movie’s pacing in its waning minutes. There’s another crowd song that’s really well done, but Shun and Umi have cause to rush to the harbor as soon as they can. They receive aid from an unexpected but plausible source, and though the conclusion to their story is slightly abrupt (as was Arrietty’s) and a little convenient, it is memorable and completely satisfying without ever feeling forced.
The closing credits are as lovely as the rest of the movie, with some segments placed against one character’s abstract art pieces. There’s very little inappropriate content, with only some mildly questionable word choices and some drug depictions to take note of. The story can occasionally be just a little hard to follow, but it’s resolved gorgeously, making for a work that earns a very high place among its Studio Ghibli peers.
Conclusion: Some movies should speak for themselves.
I have this unfortunate habit of becoming enamored with a movie’s premise and accordingly setting up lofty expectations for the rest of the product. This has caused me some issues at times–Hanna, while still a good film, comes readily to mind–but From Up on Poppy Hill sees my expectations and completely blows them away. From start to finish it reminds me of why I keep taking those chances and hoping for the best with each film I watch and review: the payoff is absolutely spectacular.
I wasn’t sure what to expect from this movie, having been underwhelmed by what I saw of Goro Miyazaki’s earlier Tales from Earthsea, but clearly he has learned how to make a compelling setting and story. Films from this studio are rarely hyperactive to begin with, but Poppy Hill often feels relaxed even in comparison to those. It might not be the ideal film for the easily bored, but the movie makes plenty of appeals to an adult audience through its depth and not its crassness.
This is certainly worthy of appreciation, and the movie truly is its own reward. Its momentary lulls feel realistic instead of making the story lack for substance; with gorgeous sights and sounds from one end to the other, From Up on Poppy Hill is a classic in its medium, and there’s no reason it should be missed.
Image credits (property of Studio Ghibli et al.)
– Movie poster – source
– “From up on Poppy Hill” – source
– Umi raising flags – source
– The Latin Quarter – source
– The newspaper room – source
– Umi and Shun on a bicycle – source
– Umi and Shun by the coast – source
– Latin Quarter reborn – source
– Tokyo Olympics sign – source
– Shun meeting Umi – source
– Flags raised – source