Review: From Up On Poppy Hill

In the time heading up to the Tokyo Olympics, development is occurring round the city and nearby areas to prepare for the big event. A young high school girl named Umi lives near a harbour, and regularly raises signal flags out to the ocean, as she was taught by her father who died in the Korean War. On a regular day at school she comes across a boy named Shun, an editor for the school newspaper and the leader of a protest group that wants the school to keep an old boys clubhouse, which is planned to be demolished for a new building in preparation for the Olympics. While reluctant at first, Umi finds a liking to Shun’s effort and personality and helps out with the newspaper as well as encourage most of the female students to volunteer cleaning and restoring the building. All seems to be going well until it is discovered that the principle is going forward with demolishing the building, as well as both Shun and Umi discovering something about their lives that means they may never be together like they wanted to be.

Announced in December 2010, it was revealed to be the second film directed by Goro Miyazaki, with his father writing the screenplay along with Keiko Niwa. With both Miyazaki’s working together on the project, as well as the large and heavily experienced team brought onto the film, most people had been optimistic about this film, particularly with a premise more down to earth after the failure that was Tales from Earthsea. Production however took a halt during the 2011 Earthquakes and Tsunami, causing continuous blackouts and making production hazardous to work in. In order to continue making progress, the studio worked into the nights and some of the team moved to a temporary studio in order to get the film finished. Miraculously, From Up on Poppy Hill was finished on time and was ready for release on 16th July 2011.

As with other Studio Ghibli films, the animation is vividly detailed and very realistic, with loads of people moving and acting differently from one another, and even more subtle emotions are displayed among characters, even noticeable stuff is happening in the background to give more of an atmosphere. On some occasions the movements feel a bit cheesy but mostly when it is used in playful moments. There aren’t as many unique or stylistic scenes or effects used to make the animation shine like Princess Mononoke, Pom Poko, Sprited Away or Ponyo, but it does have a realistic feel without going beyond the uncanny valley, with good use of colours to make it vibrant.

The music is good; however it can get a bit repetitive. While this isn’t entirely wrong if a film wants to have familiar themes, and the music has a nice classic feel and would make a good listen too on its own, especially the main theme song by —, but this soundtrack has too few and less varied music for the kind of film it is. While watching I could make out at least three or four tracks that were played more than once in the entire film. It’s slightly disappointing but still good music nonetheless.

Since the film hasn’t had an English release since being released over a year ago, I’ve only seen Poppy Hill in Japanese, and for the most part the voice acting is ok, although rather downplayed. Most of the actors speak and act like real people, and the only ones that go into characters is the comic relief.

This is the second film by Goro Miyazaki, son of Hayao Miyazaki, whose directorial debut was the mostly criticised adaptation, Tales from Earthsea. Going into his second film he goes away from a huge fantasy epic which was hyped as the Studio Ghibli dream project to what is essentially a low key rom-com drama, and this time with his father by his side for the screenplay. For the Japanese critics, the main question from day one of the release of this film, is has he gotten better as a director. My answer would be yes he has, in that he is able to keep what is relatively a basic romance plot interesting, and making characters likable as well. On the other hand most of the characters don’t appear as memorable, as it was difficult in remembering the names of most of them. Most of the issues with the film are with the plot and subplot, both of which go into spoiler warning territory so skip the next paragraph to avoid it.

In my plot summary I mention that there was one issue that prevents Umi and Shun from being together, in the film, Shun discovers from a photo that both of them have is that both of them share the same father, meaning that they are siblings, and therefore is too unnatural for them to be together. Now while I have some problems with incestual relationships, I don’t think it’s something to judge harshly on and I wouldn’t mind it being discussed in a storytelling narrative. The problem is that no story that I’ve heard of have ever stayed committed all the way to the end. In this film, they spend a few moments showing some of the thoughts that cross between both Umi and Shun, a moment when they confess that they don’t care about being siblings and then suddenly it turns out they were never siblings to begin with, so it is perfectly ok for them to be together and there barrier was entirely pointless. It’s like the studio was trapped in a corner and took the coward’s way out, instead of having a strong conflict that could open ideas.

The other part of the story is the subplot involving the boys’ clubhouse. I would say that the clubhouse is an allegory for modern Japan’s economy and politics, and the time period of the upcoming Tokyo Olympics, which in historical context actually worsened Japan’s economy, as a warning for the implications on making changes, but it isn’t written like and allegory, it is a blatant reference to the director’s views on Japan. It’s so blatant that every now and then one of the students like Shun talk about how their Principle and the majority always focus on the future and leave the past and traditions behind, it gets annoying really quickly and feels like I’m getting some “deep” political views shoved down my throat. Adding in how Umi is written as the great person who saves everything despite doing not much and having every female student clean the clubhouse to make it better like its Goro’s father writing this film, and it seems like Goro Miyazaki is taking his father’s good points, but he doesn’t get what makes his points work for him.

If there is anything that keeps this from being a bad film, is that its story and plot tones the film down to where it doesn’t take itself entirely seriously. Most of it is played for a fun nice watch and not to tell the audience some really important message. When they do get serious however, is repetitive and the romance is nicely done except for the part where it doesn’t fully commit to. Goro Miyazaki has improved as a director but he still has much to do before he hits a real running streak.

From Up on Poppy Hill is currently unavailable for English audiences, but it will most likely get a release from GDKids and Studio Canal UK sometime the following year. The original manga series, written by Tetsuro Sayama with illustrations by Chizuru Takahashi was republished in 2010 by Kadokawa Shoten but doesn’t have an English release as of writing.

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