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From Up on Poppy Hill

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From Up on Poppy Hill (2011)

I don’t envy those who have chosen to follow in the footsteps of successful parents in the same field. Apparently, neither does Gorō Miyazaki who was long said to be reluctant to follow his parents, and specifically his legendary director of a father, into the world of animation. So against the notion was Miyazaki that he went to school for agriculture and took up landscaping for many years. It wasn’t until he was 39 that he made his directorial debut with the Studio Ghibli film Tales From Earthsea. It is said he worked his way into the role of director, first starting off as a storyboard artist which impressed his bosses enough to promote him to director. This was said to have gone against the wishes of his father, Hayao Miyazaki, who felt the younger Miyazaki wasn’t ready. As a result, the two did not collaborate at all on the film, though the father gave the film a positive endorsement upon release.

The film community was less kind to Tales From Earthsea. Commercially it was a success, and there were some positive reviews for it initially, but since it has come to be viewed as probably the worst film released by Studio Ghibli. It’s the only one with a negative rating on aggregate review websites, and it would not have been surprising to see Gorō Miyazaki return to a lesser role. He did not though, and returned in 2011 with a new film; From Up on Poppy Hill. Unlike with his first film, From Up on Poppy Hill was a collaboration with father Hayao Miyazaki, whom together with Keiko Niwa, wrote the screenplay for the feature. As a result, it feels very much like a Hayao Miyazaki work as it features a hard-working female protagonist trying to make sense of adolescence on her path towards adulthood.

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Umi and Shun’s first encounter leaves Umi feeling embarrassed and angry.

Umi Matsuzaki is a sixteen year old high school student who lives at, and more or less runs, her grandmother’s boarding house. She is the eldest of three girls and takes on a maternal role to her younger sisters while their mother is away in the United States studying abroad. Her father was the captain of a trade ship that was sunk during the Korean War. Every morning since she was a little girl, Umi has risen early to raise signal flags wishing safe passage for all sailors. It was a practice she undertook while her father was alive, and continues even past his death.

The film takes the viewer to a post-war Japan, where those wishing to usher the country into a new era are clashing with those who wish to preserve history. At the center of this is a clubhouse located at the high school. It’s an old, dilapidated, building that some would like to see bulldozed, but the students who use it view it as a haven for their various clubs that occupy it. One such club is the school newspaper, and within it a poem about Umi’s flags appears one morning. A chance encounter that day with the newspaper’s editor, Shun Kazama, initially sours Umi to the young man, but she soon finds herself wondering about the poem and if Shun was the author.

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A tugboat proudly responds to Umi’s signal flags, leading to a poem appearing in the school newspaper.

The two end up striking up a fast friendship, due in part to Umi’s sister wanting to meet Shun following a daredevil stunt he performed at lunch the prior day. Umi was put-off by that same stunt, finding it reckless and foolish, but she comes to be drawn to Shun pretty easily. She agrees to help out with the paper, and things seem to be progressing the way a lot of young romances do, but soon something from Shun’s past pops up and things get complicated.

When the issue first surfaces, Shun becomes withdrawn from Umi and pays her only the bare minimum attention as she and her friends start helping out with the restoration of the clubhouse in an effort to change attitudes towards it. Umi is confused and hurt, not knowing what she did and interpreting Shun’s attitude towards her as being founded in anger. It’s a pretty relatable situation for anyone who went through high school and the awkward start to what seemed like a promising relationship. It’s a strength of so many Studio Ghibli pictures, the ability to authentically portray young adulthood, and they’re so well versed in doing it that it still translates across the ocean to a non Japanese audience.

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The rundown old clubhouse is a character itself.

I don’t want to go into detail regarding Shun’s secret that he keeps from Umi as I don’t wish to spoil anything for those who have yet to see the film, though I’ll say it’s nothing nefarious or duplicitous. The silent treatment routine doesn’t last long, and the characters are forced to confront the new conflict, though just as quickly they’re ushered into a subplot about saving their old clubhouse. The clubhouse plot felt the most contrived of anything in the film, conjuring up memories of poorly executed teen dramas from the 80’s and 90’s where the characters seek to preserve a place of refuge for themselves. It’s not very compelling, but serves its purpose to force our two main characters into an awkward situation where they must work together and not let their personal lives disrupt their shared goal. The overarching conflict between the two is resolved in the end, and it was somewhat anti-climactic and not as rewarding as it probably could have been. It’s resolved in such a neat and tidy manner that I felt the issue wasn’t given its due. It could have been explored in greater detail, but perhaps those involved felt it couldn’t have been without straying into some weird, possibly taboo, places.

The resolution of the film may have been unsatisfying, but it didn’t ruin what came before it for me. The interactions between Umi and Shun are what drive the picture. We feel their quiet affection for each other as their relationship blossoms and we can cut the tension with a knife when things go wrong. They’re both strong, sympathetic, individuals and the film is able to say a lot with small, quiet, scenes. The supporting characters around them are only portrayed in the simplest of tones. We get some sense of the camaraderie that exists amongst the women staying at the boarding house, but we’re only given the bare minimum. Sometimes Ghibli movies are guilty of overstaying their welcome and upping the runtime needlessly, but this is the rare film in the studio’s catalog that probably could have benefitted from another twenty minutes or so (it’s listed runtime is 92 minutes).

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Studio Ghibli’s scenic visuals have become routine, though no less breathtaking.

From Up on Poppy Hill is another Studio Ghibli production where the localization for english speaking audiences was not handled by Disney, but by GKIDS, who also handled other non-Hayao Miyazaki pictures like When Marnie Was There and The Tale of the Princess Kaguya. The GKIDS localizations tend to possess less star power than the Disney counterparts, but they’re of no less quality. I’m of the mind that voice acting and traditional acting in front of a camera are of limited relation; success with one does not guarantee success with the other. The cast assembled by GKIDS is talented and professional, and I very much enjoyed my viewing experience.

The soundtrack for the film is perhaps understated. Composed by Satoshi Takebe, it won’t be mistaken with the works of other Ghibli composers, but it’s not a fault of the picture. From Up on Poppy Hill is a grounded, quiet, story that does not need grandiose pieces of music to fill gaps between scenes. What’s here works, even if it’s not particularly memorable. The visuals in the film are of the same, superior, quality of other Ghibli works. The backgrounds are lush and vibrant and the characters expressive, even if a bit simple. My only complaint would be some awkward walking animations early in the picture, that were either absent from the rest of the film or just not picked up on by me as I became engrossed with what I was seeing.

I have some valid criticisms about From Up on Poppy Hill, but at the end of the day this is still a film I very much enjoyed. Studio Ghibli is simultaneously both masters of the fantastic and the mundane. This is one of the studio’s simpler pictures, and it’s a well done tale about two youths navigating the sea of young adulthood without resorting to corn or cliché. The conflict is legitimate, and not young adult camp, even if it’s resolved in perhaps a far too convenient manner. Perhaps it was a quiet, grounded, picture like this one needed to extract the talent present in Gorō Miyazaki, as opposed to the more fantastic Tales From Earthsea. The younger Miyazaki has not returned to the director’s chair since From Up on Poppy Hill for a Studio Ghibli feature, instead taking his talents to the small screen with Sanzoku no Musume Rōnya. Hopefully, he does get the opportunity to direct another feature as I very much look forward to what he does next.