Ah the second film of Goro Miyazaki. I feel kind of bad that out of the two experience’s you can have with Goro as a director of a Ghibli film one of them is Tales from Earthsea. To not get a positive reception when starting out in the industry can be daunting for future projects. Especially when your own father didn’t necessarily think it was a good film or even that you should be given the film in the first place. To me there is baggage that I am expecting Goro to carry, but I am also hoping that this gives him the drive to make something great. From Up on Poppy Hill is the second film directed by Goro in the Ghibli library and unfortunately will be the last due to Ghibli not continuing. Tackling the post war era of Japan, Goro’s new film while shorter than the last one seems to be a more ambitious one moving away from the elements that his father usually uses in his films and try to find his own personal touch. The only thing is, does he find his stride with just his second film?
From Up on Poppy Hill is the story of two children in the post war era of Japan. Umi is a girl living in her grandmother’s boarding house and raises flags every morning to signal her father back home. One day she gets feelings for a boy named Shun and they start to unravel their pasts and figure out the truths behind their father. Now this does at times feel like a period piece melodrama, especially with the “will they won’t they” romance that often gives you the run around. It has the typical moments to a romance that definitely shows the age of the source material, much like the elements that tear them apart getting kind of remedied by the end. It is as predictable as story as you are going to get for the romance especially when one scene happens, you will easily predict the rest. What really helps the story come to life is the subplot involving the Latin Quarter, an old clubhouse threatened to be torn down, and the truth behind their fathers.
The Latin Quarter first off is the only fantastical element in the film. This clubhouse and how all these boys work in there is truly the most compelling element visually that the film has to offer. They all reminded me of myself and how awkward I was during that period of time but also how passionate I was in regards to my hobbies/work. There is the sense of time immemorial in the setting, and the changes it has to undergo to stay afloat doesn’t hinder that feeling at all. Watching the characters interact in that place is at times magical even when there is not classic Ghibli magic to speak of because this is a magic that is more relatable to us as people. Watching people come together and to have fun together through discovering their passions is rewarding to watch and why this could be the best element of this film.
The question of the leads fathers is something that both plays towards the melodrama and the sentiments. The melodrama aspect feels dated, but for the most part this plotline gives you some really stand out moments. What it does is wrap you up in the feelings of its leads, understanding not the why their fathers died in the war but rather how they feel towards the fact and how it affects them and those around them. This isn’t a “why is war bad” type of scenario but rather one with more nuance than that and asking the question of what happens when you are gone. We learn the whys to smaller questions, like Shun’s feelings towards his adoptive family and Umi’s desire to always raise the flag. Their journeys are the ones we connect to in the post war era and the film has a terrific payoff right at the end of it regarding that. Wait for that one moment…just wait for it, it was hard not to cry during that even after not entirely enjoying the film.
Umi and Shun are the two characters we get attached to over the course of the film, yet I find Umi a far more interesting character than Shun. Umi’s attitude towards life and the few moments where she breaks through her hardened exterior is really heartwarming to watch and grabs you quite fast. Shun on the other hand comes off as a brash and thrill-seeking boy who also acts as an activist. While that generic personality does break way across the film, it makes it hard to endear him to us in the beginning of the film because he does feel like a generic “boy” protagonist character. The boys of the Latin Quarter are both fun in characterization and have a lot of charm to them as well as the female students who help them. I think besides Umi to me, the stand out performance definitely comes from the small moment of Jamie Lee Curtis as Umi’s mother. It is a small moment in the film, but it is one of the more heartwarming and that is kind of thanks to Curtis’s performance. She has the comforting tone of voice that helps to console our lead in her time of vulnerability and it makes the mother feel very human to me.
I feel like the brunt of the film meanders a bit too much to be bearable at times. It has a hard time playing things straight in the narrative and often has moments that either fall flat due to unnecessary comedy or just aimless storytelling. At times the film feels a bit too meticulous in how it tells things, often focusing on the small things but without a sense of flair or dialogue about them. It just doesn’t feel important and more to pad out time. Where in Only Yesterday small moments like cutting the pineapple is given great detail because of the eventual punchline, From up on Poppy hill feels like it has random scenes in just to make the film fit the minimum runtime for a theatrical release. These are moments that will test one’s patience especially because they will reuse the same joke multiple times and expect you to laugh each time because all the other characters laugh.
The animation to me feels cheap in regards to a Ghibli production. At times it is hard to see the elements that are glossed over in any Ghibli film, but in this one film in particular there is some noticeable shortcuts in regard to budget handling. They have a montage sequence of still images over a certain part of the film that lessens the enjoyment their visual comedy could do in motion. We go to see animation to see still images come to life, not to stare at them while somebody talks over them. It is a bit absurd in that respect, and the classic detail one usually notices can be lost in the sprawling backdrops. It has a hard time remaining consistent to me, and with Ghibli you usually look for those small moments of great animation and I feel like this film lacked that. I won’t give it much of a pass either especially with how Isao Takahata’s films thrive on the subtle moments of animation.
Yet I feel it uses what budget it has wisely in moments. There are scenes that are noticeably better animated and handled than others. Usually involving the downtown sector of the city, or the subways, or the one bike trip the two leads take together. Even scenes that kind of transcend the movie itself as stand out moments in Studio Ghibli for me. There are moments that explode on the screen, but I believe that is more thanks to how the film was handled. Goro Miyazaki does come into his own in this film, even if he did get help from his father in terms of script. There is a noticeable improvement from Tales from Earthsea in regards to story and characters. Things make sense here and at times pull on your heart strings greatly. You care about this film even though it can be uneven and have a lot of downtime that isn’t meaningful, and I feel that shows the growth of Goro as a director. It isn’t perfect, it isn’t like the other films that came before it, but it is something to take notice of and still lands on the positive side of the Ghibli library.
From Up on Poppy Hill is not going to win any Oscars, but it will most likely win the hearts of its audience. The film thrives upon its setting and the music, while sounding like something The Fonze would hit a jukebox to play in moments, is very fitting. It has that cheesy yet nostalgic feeling that pervades the film. Nostalgia to a simpler time of life is what I feel like a lot of adults will get from this film, yet children can also see themselves in the cast as well. It really pulls on your heartstrings in moments and keeps you invested in the events even when the film at times doesn’t feel like it is. I feel happy though, that Goro Miyazaki had found that one film to get praised for and even though it is not a film I particularly see a lot of merit in it certainly can capture a moment and stick with it well into the credits. That I think is what makes me happy most of all.
The thing I am finding out about each of these movies is how much I need to think about each film after watching it. Some times it is easy to just watch a film and the words come out naturally, like Planes for instance. Every Ghibli film in this marathon has been kind of an endeavour to write up and keep up with what time I normally post. Truly a testament to the type of filmmaking caliber Studio Ghibli has.
Have you seen From Up on Poppy Hill? What nice and heartwarming post war dramas do you like? Feel free to leave a comment down below and don’t forget to have a happy day!