“Some of us aren’t so ready to let go of the past, and sometimes the past is not ready to let go of us either.”
From Up on Poppy Hill (originally From Coquelicot Hill in Japan) is Goro Miyazaki’s second directorial project for Studio Ghibli and it ultimately proved that he could channel the sentimental, nostalgic, serene, thematic, and lighthearted spirit of his genius father. From Up on Poppy Hill surprised my fellow moviegoers, upon seeing it in cinemas, when they learned after it was over that it was not directed by Hayao Miyazaki but by his son. Goro has come a long way if he can successfully emulate the work of his father.
Compared to Goro’s previous film, Tales from Earthsea, this is practically a tour de force. He got a second chance at directing and hit the proverbial “it” out of the park. Gone is the dreariness, weariness and boredom of Goro’s fantastical Earthsea for a more ordinary, non-fantasy, fantastic melodrama romance.
I’ve found in reviewing these films that the most fantastical are the most popular. Such is to be expected. Escapism is a powerful thing and imaginative fantasy can have a powerful impact upon storytelling, conveying meaning relative to our real-world lives. Ghibli is renown for their fantasy. Their more realistic movies such as Only Yesterday, My Neighbors the Yamadas, and this, From Up on Poppy Hill tend to be among the more obscure of their work.
I was trying to push both Only Yesterday and My Neighbors the Yamadas recently by showing off their trailers, and they’re obviously underwhelming in comparison to the scope, scale, and imagination of Ghibli’s other works. Yet, fantasy isn’t the plumb line for quality. Just ask The Cat Returns and Earthsea. Those two are generally considered to be the worst on the Ghibli library.
Poppy Hill may contain no fantasy and the film has to do with history, the personal and scholastic history of realistic people, yet out of the mundane realism of grocery shopping, preparing breakfast, throwing dinner parties, and walking to school Goro manages to draw up unmistakable charm as if from a hidden well. In a lot of ways I’m reminded of Whisper of the Heart. Never knew he had it in him!
From Up on Poppy Hill was scripted in part by Hayao Miyazaki, working closely with his son as opposed to being opposed to his directing during Earthsea’s production. In true Studio Ghibli fashion, the film is an adaptation of a manga of the same name by Tetsuro Sayama and Chizuru Takahashi.
Set in a slightly fictionalized version of a vibrant Yokohama, Japan in 1963, the country has been swept up in modernization and the general consensus seems to be that old equals bad and new equals good. Tokyo is preparing to host the 1964 Summer Olympics, so it’s out with the old and cruddy to demonstrate to the world that Japan is a bustling, modern country. Carried away with this obsession, the relics of things long past fall to the wayside, yet there are those who cling to history as a source of inspiration. From Up on Poppy Hill is a work of pure nostalgia, then. Right up this retro-lovin’ mage’s alley.
Against this pseudohistorical backdrop is the budding relationship of two characters whose lives are dominated by their histories and where those histories converged.
Umi Matsuzaki is a responsible young woman who helps manage a boarding house and her younger siblings while her mother is away at school in America. Her father was a Navy man whose ship sunk during the Korean War. Every day she raises Naval signal flags from her backyard flagstaff at the ships passing by in the harbor below.
She soon meets a young man at her school named Shun Kazama, who runs the literary club at their school’s clubhouse, the Latin Quarter. The clubhouse is beloved by a few of the students who practically make their home in it, and its necessity is hotly debated among the students. It is soon to be demolished and the way paved for a new building in its place. Shun and soon Umi are opposed to the demolition and work together to spruce up the old place and bring out what really makes the building and its history special.
In the process, Umi and Shun learn a little bit more about themselves as they begin to fall for each other. It looks like the beginnings of a cute and innocent relationship until Umi shows Shun an old photograph of her father with some military buddies. His eyes grow wide, and he begins to distance himself from her. The big surprise is actually rather shocking.
Despite this, From Up on Poppy Hill is light fare. When I watched it, I couldn’t help but smile and I realized I’d been smiling for most of the movie. It felt like a comfort to watch. I’ve never been to Japan, but Poppy Hill even conveyed its sense of reassuring nostalgia to me, a man who lives on the other side of the world, practically.
There’s an old apothegm that says “Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.” Well I wouldn’t call Poppy Hill a comedy, in spite of its funnier moments, but it’s certainly no grave crime drama, radically shoot ’em up, or some grim superhero epic such as we’re accustomed to in the West. This kind of genuinely lighthearted film doesn’t come around every day. It is one which never treats its own characters as if they’re in a cheap soap opera, nor does it concern itself with creating spicy romance. Crafting its balanced blend of brightness, yearning, and heartstring-pulling was probably no easy task.
The 8-bit Review
While there are no exact moments in From Up on Poppy Hill which leap out as visual masterpieces, given the steady pace of the film, the animation is consistently colorful, optimistic and beautiful throughout. The sea is one of the world’s great subjects in art and the sea is central to Poppy Hill’s setting. I couldn’t help but let out a satisfied and happy sigh at the sight of Umi’s backyard overlooking the ocean at the foot of the hill below.
I am constantly amazed at the level of detail which Studio Ghibli puts into their films. Somebody had to sit there and paint up all of the letters on each individual paper on the walls in the literary club. Since Poppy Hill is about ordinary things, I would imagine that if I had been an animator on its development that I would’ve gotten bored quite quickly having to illustrate characters chopping lettuce or buying meat at a butcher’s or swaying on a tug boat, or raising signal flags. Yet everything in this film is lavished with realistic detail such as can only be out of an expression of love. Or perfectionism.
Considering how ordinary this film is, one must wonder: “Why even animate it at all?” Wouldn’t it simply be easier to just film it live-action? Then some poor bloke wouldn’t have to sit there and do the cobweb painting for 9 months. But then, From Up on Poppy Hill doesn’t portray reality. It portrays a stylized realism, as all animation does. It is in fact more beautiful and more limited that reality. It’s oceans, sunsets, and trees aren’t real but impressions of those things which can only be seen from a single angle and then they’re gone yet they may be among the most beautiful you’ve ever seen. This is the magic and the boundary of animation.
Whichever the case, Poppy Hill has nothing mind-blowing in the visual department. There are moments when its characters even appear flat. Nevertheless, it has a consistent beauty about it. Rose-colored glasses, right?
As a pianist and a fan of jazz in most forms, I adored the music in Poppy Hill. The film opens with what sounds like a typewriter (appropriate for the literary club) setting a metronome rhythm (maybe it is a metronome?) for the one-two ragged time of a piano theme.
So there’s a lot of piano in this soundtrack but there’s also some music with old-fashioned sensibilities. The big band/swing/ragtime/jazz score was composed by Satoshi Takebe. Wonderful as the soundtrack is, my one criticism of it is that it seems too limited. Several of its tracks play multiple times during the movie and they have similar melodies. This would be downright a complaint if the music wasn’t so enjoyable and upbeat.
The film’s theme song (below) “Summer of Farewells” was sung by Aoi Teshima, who also sang in Tales from Earthsea.
The insert song “I Shall Walk Looking Up” (aka “Sukiyaki” in the West) is played during the film, which is fitting considering the song was a hit from 1961. It helps the film feel as if it belongs to its time period. I imagine it would sound very nostalgic to those who grew up in the ’60s but oddly enough the melody was nostalgic for me as there was a popular remake of the song which played in the late ’90s in Hawaii as I was growing up.
If you’d like to avoid SPOILERS for this film, please Ctrl+f Family Friendliness to skip both the Narrative and Themes portions of this review.
Umi’s flags faithfully raise each day and one day she finds a poem about flags in the school newspaper, mystifying her. Unknown to her, Shun Kazama, a classmate at her school, can see the flags from his father’s tugboat in the harbor as he passes. They meet when Shun jumps off the roof at school into a pond as a stunt for the literary club. Umi’s immediate impression of the boy is that he’s a brash showoff, though her sister Sora is enamored with Shun and asks Umi to go with her to get his autograph from the clubhouse.
The Latin Quarter clubhouse itself is an old, run-down and trashed building infested with bugs and nerds of every sort, obsessing over their archaeology, chemistry and philosophy. Umi discovers that Shun runs the school newspaper with Shiro Mizunuma. Shiro escorts Sora out of the Latin Quarter as Umi lends her writing skills to the literary club, working together with Shun after being asked to. The two begin to show signs of affection for each other.
Soon, the Latin Quarter is in danger. It’s so old and dilapidated that there’s talk of tearing it down to put a new building in its place. At a student debate, a large majority is for the demolition while Shun is an outspoken voice of those opposing the destruction of the clubhouse for the sake of honoring and not forgetting the past as it seems everyone is obsessed with “the new”.
Umi spearheads a movement among the female students to band together and save the old clubhouse by gutting it and cleaning it, sprucing it up so it doesn’t look as if it’s ready for demolition.
Later, at a going-away party at her boarding home, Umi invites Shun and Shiro over and shows Shun a photograph of three naval officers. She points out her father, who died in the Korean War: Yuichiro Sawamura. Shun is speechless. When he arrives home that night, he takes out an old album and pull out the same photograph of the three officers. When he asks his father about it, he’s told that Yuichiro gave baby Shun to the Kazama family since they’d just lost their own child after World War II. Shun is adopted (which he knew) and Yuichiro Sawamura, Umi’s father, seems to be his father too.
Shun begins to give Umi the cold shoulder. Umi eventually draws it out of him: they’re brother and sister. He checked the city genealogy records. There’s nothing left but to agree to be friends and forget about their feelings for each other. Umi is heartbroken and dreams about her father.
Even after the renovations of the Latin Quarter are finished and the building is all spick-and-span, the Board of Education decides to move toward the demolition. The students are heartbroken but suddenly an idea: Shun, Shiro and Umi are to make an appeal directly to the chairman of the board, Tokumaru, who works in Tokyo. They head into the city and Umi’s story of the loss of her father in the war sways the heart of the businessman and he agrees to see the Latin Quarter with his own eyes, with all of the loving TLC that the students recently put into it.
Before heading back home, Shun and Umi walk alone by the sea. Umi decides to tell Shun that she can’t ignore her feelings. She does love him. Shun says he does too, despite the fact that they can’t do anything about it. They grasp hands for a moment and then go their separate ways.
When Umi arrives at home, she finds that her mother has come back from studying in America. Finally, someone Umi can press for details about Shun, if he is really her long, lost brother or not. Her mother explains that Shun is the son of Hiroshi Tachibana, one of the other officers in the photograph. Shun was orphaned when his father died in an accident, and his mother in childbirth, his relatives from the atom bomb of Nagasaki. Umi’s father took pity on the boy and brought Shun home but her mother couldn’t raise him, so they took him to the Kazama’s, where Shun was eventually raised.
Umi lets out a tremendous wave of emotion, anxiety, stress, relief, and other feelings she’d kept bottled up.
The next day, Tokumaru visits the Latin Quarter and is so moved by the student’s work that he says the board must find a different place to put their new building. The clubhouse is saved. Amid the celebration, however, Shun and Umi are called to the harbor. The last surviving man of the three officers in the photograph is there for a moment, and he can clear up the whole mess about their fathers. He meets with Umi and Shun and affirms to them that they do not have the same father after all.
Umi returns home and raises her flags over the sea.
In retrospect, I’m certain there’s no impact to the meeting between Shun, Umi and the surviving officer. It almost seems as if the movie should’ve ended with the talk with Umi’s mother and the saving of the clubhouse. Was there really such a need to rush down to the docks to see the officer? I think this is one major stroke against the film at the hand of its director. It’s climax doesn’t feel like it needed to be there, at least to me. Was there another reason why they needed to be told what Umi’s mom already told the audience?
In Shun, Umi finds a kindred spirit. He says at the debate: “You cannot move into the future without first knowing the past!” Umi’s life is dominated by the past. She has a morning ritual of setting flowers out next to a picture of her father and she of course raises the signal flags for his ship, knowing he cannot return. She later exclaims that she believes her father sent her Shun since he couldn’t return himself.
This balance of embracing the wisdom of the past alongside the modern conveniences and appearances of today forms the thematic center of From Up on Poppy Hill, and it’s not a complicated center at all. Umi and Shun both find that merely living in the past isn’t enough. Their lives being controlled by their past almost derails their entire relationship before it really has a chance to come to fruition, until they’re able to sort out the twists and turns of their parents’ histories.
I say it isn’t uncomplicated because there’s nothing that needs analyzing in Poppy Hill. Heck, Umi tells you what the whole story is about in her opening monologue. The resurrection of the Latin Quarter is a physical metaphor for Umi not being able to move on from her father’s death and her discovering a young man who also has ties to her past, but the two of them can eventually move into a new relationship together, freely, as complete human beings with an understanding of their past and hope for their future. They can only progress (and have “progress”) by coming to grips with their history. A lesson in film for their country.
But I don’t know that this is entirely a relatable theme? I can’t particularly think of a time when my own past was something I needed to discover, accept, honor, embrace, and interpret in order to move ahead into something new. Maybe this is something which resonated with others (I’m certain it was) but it’s a theme which the move wears on its sleeve, as it were. Hopefully Goro can develop his sense of weaving themes into his films. Or maybe that was Hayao’s scripting?
Thematically simple as it is, From Up on Poppy Hill is nonetheless engaging.
Family Friendliness: 7/10
Man, this is an innocent movie. I respect Ghibli for telling love stories that are all raunchy sweat-fests. Yeah of course there’s the (spoiler: highlight to reveal) fact that Shun and Umi think they may be brother and sister and yet they confess their love for each other before finding out they’re not related which makes the film a little heavier than it would seem to be at the outset. I think that’s probably the biggest obstacle for this being a true “family” film or children’s movie. Besides that, though, nothing exciting happens in terms of action sequences and the plot and the interests of the characters aren’t something which I think would really engage children, so while it’s a gentle film it has concerns which appeal to young and older adults.
This is a good cast. Sarah Bolger makes Umi a bright and adorable young woman, and Anton Yelchin does the same for Shun, though a little more soft-spoken and sounding somewhat old for the part. Shiro is voiced by Charlie Saxton and he finds the suaveness in the character behind the thick, nerdy glasses.
The rest is a group of big names: Jamie Lee Curtis as Ryoko, Umi’s mother, Gillian Anderson in her second Ghibli appearance (after Mononoke) as Miki, student-doctor at the boarding home. Even director Ron Howard got to join in on the voice action as one of the funniest characters in the move: the Philosophy Club President.
Form Up on Poppy Hill is a happily ordinary film with a few serious moments that break up the smiling levity, neither sinking into self-gratifying sadness or sailing to high on saccharine romance. It’s a well-planned and well-executed time machine of a period piece with some nutshell themes but with a heart of gold. In the end, can it be said that there’s really any one thing that super-special about it? Or is it just that all of it is so well done and well-crafted? Also a point higher for flirting with (spoiler: highlight to reveal) possible incest. You don’t see that every day.
My Personal Grade: 7/10
I’ve enjoyed From Up on Poppy Hill every time I’ve seen it, and it’s the only Studio Ghibli film I’ve been able to see in both English and Japanese in theaters. I think it is one of the best films about ordinary things to come out of the legendary animation studio. In a lot of ways, this is not a movie which Disney (arguably Ghibli’s American counterpart) would ever produce. That may explain its distribution by GKIDS, but its sweet content and its dedication to realism without fantasy is something you don’t see often in animation. Like many of Ghibli’s realistic films (especially those by Isao Takahata), Poppy Hill demonstrates the breadth and scope of animation. There’s nothing beyond its reach. If our survey of the Ghibli canon hasn’t convinced you of that, I’m unsure what will.
Goro Miyazaki proved himself as a capable director with Poppy Hill. I’m not privy to the plans and schemes of Studio Ghibli, but I’d second any motion that moved for Goro to helm another film, if not become the direct successor of his father’s legacy. Is he Hayao Miyazaki? No. Nobody can be. Just like nobody could ever be Walt Disney or Stanley Kubrick, Gene Wilder or Shigeru Miyamoto, Julie Andrews or Dick Van Dyke, St. Augustine or Scott Joplin, Isaac Asimov or Steve Jobs, J.R.R. Tolkein or C.S. Lewis. They can’t have “successors” that are exactly like them. These are all geniuses in their own right. Goro has to find his own footing among them.
Keep raising those signal flags, sir.
Aggregated Score: 7.4