From Up on Poppy Hill is not the kind of film anyone familiar with the names Studio Ghibli and Miyazaki might come to expect from the Oscar-winning and blockbuster studio and director.
But while this film written by Hayao Miyazaki and Keiko Niwa and directed by Hayao’s son Goro Miyazaki may be the opposite of the more fantastical films they are known for, it isn’t any less beautifully animated nor less emotionally affecting.
From Up on Poppy Hill tells the story of Umi Matsuzaki, a 16-year old high school student in 1963 Yokohama. While taking care of her family’s boarding house and its residents in the mornings and evenings, she takes an interest in helping fellow student Shun Kazama work to save her school’s dilapidated clubhouse from demolition.
Working together soon draws them closer to each other until a surprising past is revealed that momentarily puts a stop to the feelings they have developed for each other.
And while that little tidbit sounds very soapy, especially for an animated film from Studio Ghibli, it is only one small part of the greater narrative.
And that narrative is one that evokes a dream-like nostalgia very much present in the previous works of Miyazaki, the senior. The signature hand-drawn animation beautifully brings to life a more idyllic, yet at the same time tensely transitional period in Japan’s history.
Serving as a window to the country and its people after World War II and the Korean War and before the successful 1964 Tokyo Olympics, From Up on Poppy Hill is a nostalgic and warm slice of life drama. It paints the picture of a bustling, but hometown feeling port city during a much simpler time, making it relatable to people of any culture or ethnicity. Specifically, it touches on the quickly developing country, eager to recover from the painful decades before.
Thinking of Studio Ghibli and the master that is Hayao Miyazaki, one immediately thinks of such fantastical films as Spirited Away or My Neighbor Totoro or fiercely thought provoking films like Princess Mononoke and pre-Ghibli Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind. And while it shares many of the same qualities, From Up on Poppy Hill is a much simpler story.
But it is in its simplicity that From Up on Poppy Hill draws its best, unique qualities. It is at times a heartwarming story of friendship and young love and at others, a fun look at childhood and youth. The film subtly, but effectively conveys that poignant nostalgia that can make even a 26-year old youngin like me can get teary eyed at the thought of a much simpler time.
The film takes care to point out how important the past is in our present and future. For the characters, it is their holding on to their pasts that help get them through to their futures. That’s a philosophy I personally subscribe to as well, making it that much more meaningful to me.
So yes, the film does have plenty of MaGMCMs, including right at the end when everything just sinks in. And that may just be a trademark of a Hayao Miyazki written screenplay.
While the younger Miyazaki, Goro, drew a tepid response to his directorial debut, the uneven Tales from Earthsea, he recovers very well here and shows that he does have a promising future following in his father’s very big footsteps.
From Up on Poppy Hill may not have the grand, fantastical adventure of other Studio Ghibli films, but it is just as engaging and contains just as much magic thanks to its beautifully breathtaking visuals, likeable characters and sincerely nostalgic story.
(Note: While the film has just been released with its English-dub, I watched the original Japanese version with subtitles.)