From Up On Poppy Hill
Film review by Leonardo Flores
On Saturday July 16th, 2011 I had the pleasure to be in Japan and be present for the opening day debut of the latest Studio Ghibli feature film, From Up On Poppy Hill (Kokuriko-zaka kara), the second feature film to be directed by Goro Miyazaki, son of studio co-founder Hayao Miyazaki.
Set in 1963 in Yokohama, Japan and a year before the opening of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, From Up On Poppy Hill tells the story of teenage Umi Matsuzaki and her fascination with a local teenage boy named Shun Kazama. Umi lives up on a hill overlooking the Yokohama seaside and busy sea traffic lanes and every morning before breakfast she raises a signal flag that signals “Safe Voyage” to the passing ships.
Headstrong Shun is a local teenager who was adopted into his family during the later half of WWII. Although his adoption had not been a big issue with Shun, it is when he visited Umi’s home that he sees a duplicate picture that his adopted father owns of three young Imperial Japanese Navy sailors in Umi’s family possession. With Umi’s father already passed on and her mother out the country for her photography business leads Umi and Shun on a personal discovery on the mystery of the photograph that could perhaps lead to the discovery of Shun’s background and parentage.
This film is set in an important time in Japanese history. One of my co-workers is a Japanese gentlemen in his 70’s and was seven years old when WWII ended and who clearly remembers the aftermath of the war. Just a couple of weeks ago I just happen to ask him when he felt Japan recovered from the war and became a modern nation and people felt optimistic again. He said the 1964 Olympics was the turning point for the Japanese people and the beginning of the economic boom that would last through the 80’s.
It was a timely question as this is one of the central themes of From Up On Poppy Hill in the guise of the old French school building that Shun and his friends are squatting in that is scheduled to be demolished. The debate is between the students is split into two camps: one group of students believe the building should be destroyed to make way for a new and modern building while the second group believes in embracing preserving the past traditions. This was the argument of the nation in 1963 before the Olympics and represented here with students who just happen to be the first generation of children born towards the end of WWII.
One of the main issues that many people had with this film was Goro Miyazaki directing the film, especially in light of his first feature-length film, Tales of Earthsea. Tales Of Earthsea was not a highlight of the Ghibli canon and most of the criticism of the film was directed to Goro Miyazaki. My criticisms of the film include: the tone of the film never being fully established, the rhythm of the film does not push the film along and the lack of detail in the animation itself. The music, which is important aspect of all Ghibli films, did not drive the film along as well.
From Up On Poppy Hill does not have any of those issues that were prevalent in Earthsea. Poppy Hill was an energized film lead along by a wonderful Jazz music score, which I believe is a first for a Ghibli Film. The Jazz music gave the film a youthful energy and fun vibe that pushed the film along at a great rhythm.
I liken the tone of From Up on Poppy Hill in the vein of Only Yesterday, Whispers of the Heart and Ocean Waves and not the magical enchanting journey of a Hayao Miyazaki film or the overt political and social overtones of Isao Takahata films but a nice blend of the two. In fact I feel Isao Takahata’s films had a big influence on Poppy Hill as with the social issues of war orphans being a prominent undertone of the film but never quite taking over the film.
It is the Japanese pop culture references that continue popping up throughout Poppy Hill where the film seems like it was greatly influenced by Only Yesterday. For example, Kyu Sakamoto’s worldwide pop single Ue O Muite Aruko known in English as Sukiyaki is played two times in the film in some very touching scenes and it was great to see Kyu living on in animated form, especially in light of his tragic death and a touching tribute to his legacy. Keep in mind Goro Miyazaki was born in 1967 and Ue O Muite Aruko was released in 1961 making the song a reflective “oldies” song for Goro as well with Goro not even being alive when it was released.
Whereas the feel of Poppy Hill reminds me of Only Yesterday, it is the superb detailed backgrounds, lush and gentle animation and the nuanced and deceptively deep characters that it reminds me of Whispers of the Heart. The detail of the Poppy Hill is phenomenal and I guarantee that on repeated viewings you will find something new that you never saw before. The highlight of the film is when Shun and Umi travel to 1963 Tokyo to discuss the French School building with the owners of the schoolhouse. Seeing 1963 Tokyo and Yokohama in animated form in such detail was awe-inspiring. These details including the period Tokyo cable cars, the Hikawa Maru Yokohama cruise ship, the newly built Tokyo Tower and various Meiji era shops and Taisho era hotels. In fact, these details were so beautifully done that when I bought the mook on the film I was shocked to find that these places existed or still exist.
There is a moment in the film where the two pick up a snack at a small shop in Yokohama and it was surprising to know that the shop not only existed in 1963 but it is still in business as of today. I thought a quick shot of “Miyazaki Flowers” was a Ghibli in joke only to realize the place really existed and is also still in business in Yokohama.
The From Up On Poppy Hill builds to an excellent and completely satisfying ending and I can personally say it is a solid Ghibli film especially if you are a fan of the more introspective youth driven films like Whispers Of The Heart and my personal favorite Only Yesterday. The hard realization is that Isao Takahata and Hayao Miyazaki are both in their 70’s and between them we most likely to have less than 5 more feature-length animated films to be directed by the two with the last two Ghibli films, From Up On Poppy Hilll and Arrietty having been directed by two new directors.
Goro Miyazaki directed an excellent film with From Up On Poppy Hill and it is one of my personal Ghibli favorites. If Goro continues this direction with such a high-quality film as From Up on Poppy Hill, we should know that Isao Takahata and Hayao Miyazaki handed the studio and its legacy to some good hands.