Review: From Up on Poppy Hill
Directed by Goro Miyazaki and written by Keiko Niwa with his father, the Japanese animation great Hayao Miyazaki, From Up on Poppy Hill does not conform to the Studio Ghibli fare of fantastical creatures and magical hidden worlds for which Miyazaki the elder is so well known. Rather, the film concerns itself much more with the strictly interpersonal, sensationalizing human trials of love and family. In other words, the content here is pure melodrama. The form, however, is the same lovely hand-drawn animation for which said studio is famous, employing a lightness that tempers the story arc and cultivating a charming innocence in the central romance that is more complicated than seems at first blush.
Set in 1963 just before the Tokyo Olympics, the film’s story takes place in the Port of Yokohama. Umi (voiced in this release by Sarah Bolger) runs a boardinghouse practically singlehandedly, despite being only in high school. Her mother is studying in the U.S.; her father, a sailor, died in the Korean War. The love interest of this young beacon of responsibility is predictably the school daredevil, Shun (Anton Yelchin), a student as public in his endeavors as she is private. One of his pet causes is a soon-to-be demolished clubhouse, an old dirty building filled with boys and their toys that’s taking up prime real estate on campus. While Poppy Hill is by and large familiar territory, it’s this theme of obsessively throwing out the old in favor of the new (diegetically spurred on by the impending Olympiad) that most resonates, inasmuch as Goro Miyazaki has made a film concerned with continuing a legacy—both that of his looming father and the attendant and defiantly non-CGI animation style. The clubhouse’s animated depth, with layers of trinkets, schoolboy ephemera, and private nooks and crannies, might not be half as charming were it computer generated.
Such a dedication and honoring of the past is rare when it’s usually treated with a choice between an “out with the old” attitude or a complete fetishization. Poppy Hill instead does neither, demonstrating a respectful nostalgia for the time and the atmosphere balanced by an understanding of history and its holes. (There is an unfortunate plot point that hinges on Umi and other women’s strengths being in the home, with all the women being called upon as a cleaning army, that the film would likely be better without.)
It’s ultimately a tame, safe film despite the surprisingly taboo complications to the young love that are introduced, but one that has its charms. The question now of whether or not Goro Miyazaki is to carve out as memorable a place for himself as his father remains to be seen.