Anime Retrospective – From Up on Poppy Hill Review

Warning: this review contains spoilers for From Up on Poppy Hill.

Any anime fan, whether a total newcomer or a long-time superfan, has heard of Studio Ghibli and Hayao Miyazaki and has seen at least a handful of his films. But despite the studio’s critical acclaim and worldwide fame, those Studio Ghibli films not directed or written by Miyazaki, particularly the films of his son Gorou Miyazaki, are often ignored by the anime community. With almost all of Studio Ghibli’s filmography airing on Netflix this summer, I decided now was as good a time as any to rewatch Gorou Miyazaki’s films and see if I might appreciate them more the second time around. His first film Tales from Earthsea (2006) is perhaps best left forgotten, but his second film From Up on Poppy Hill (2011) blew me away with how much better it was than I remembered. While his first film still suffers from a scrambled plot and noticeably inconsistent animation quality, From Up on Poppy Hill is a polished and sophisticated film that intelligently explores issues of war, modernity, family, and the growing divide between Japan’s youth and the traditions of previous generations, themes which teenage me evidently decided were too boring to remember or care about. Revisiting the film as an adult has given me a new appreciation for it and has convinced me that it deserves to be recognized and critically discussed alongside the rest of the Studio Ghibli canon.

Within the very first scene, two of the film’s greatest strengths—its soundtrack and animation— are on full display. The bouncy and playful opening song “Asagohan no Uta” by Aoi Teshima whimsically introduces us to protagonist Umi as she prepares breakfast for her extended boarding house family. The vocals are light and the lyrics silly, describing in detail various popular Japanese breakfast items and perfectly capturing that feeling of cozy and contented domestic life. The song immediately gives us an idea of the fun and domestic sides of Umi’s character and sets the chill tone that the rest of Satoshi Takebe’s score follows. Gorgeous instrumental pieces like “Reminiscence” and “Dream” accompany the softer moments of the narrative and evoke a subtle melancholy feeling that parallels the troubled but hopeful arcs of protagonists Shun and Umi. While the soundtrack may not be quite at the masterpiece level of Joe Hisaishi’s work with other Studio Ghibli movies, it’s still a very unique and tranquil score that elevates every moment of the film.

That first scene of Umi preparing breakfast is also a perfect example of the care and attention that Studio Ghibli has always put into capturing authentic human interactions and motion. Umi’s movements about the kitchen, from dicing vegetables to measuring rice, look entirely realistic, and the animation of each boarding house member as they come down to breakfast, whether sluggishly slumping over food or quickly darting in for a bite to eat before running off to school, establishes each character’s personality, Umi’s most of all, without any exposition or dialogue. Through Umi’s efficient and speedy preparation of food alone, the film is able to portray Umi as a responsible, independent, and incredibly mature teenager, whose unstable home-life has taught her to fend for herself and her younger siblings.

Furthermore, Umi’s character design works alongside the realistic animation to subtly reveal her character without obviously coming out and stating what she feels or thinks. For the majority of the film, Umi’s hair is tightly tied into two pigtails, so as to keep her hair out of the way as she goes about her many tasks and chores, but there are two moments where her hair is noticeably left down: her dream of her deceased father and her reunion with her long-absent mother. In both scenes, Umi is emotionally vulnerable, longing for the stability of her early childhood and the return of parents either absent or dead. Her long hair and untidy appearance in these moments interrupts the façade of maturity and strength she maintains for her family, and the different hairstyle finally makes Umi look as young as she actually is. The animators cleverly use her character design to display the two sides of Umi’s character—the responsible young adult and the traumatized child—and need merely to tweak the design in order to reveal the character’s inner turmoil and current emotions without telling the audience.

Of course, like the soundtrack, the animation and art maintain the quality of the film’s first scene. Hands-down the greatest set piece is the heart of the film, the Latin Quarter clubhouse that the students are attempting to preserve from demolition. There’s a sense of unsteadiness to every part of the old building, from the weakened railings to each clubs’ awkwardly assembled curtain fort along the winding stairs. Every shelf is lined with old exams, school newspapers, and books, all covered with a visible layer of dust. The wide shots of Umi seeing the building for the first time display its impressive scale, but it is these sorts of finer details that give a sense of how old and historically significant the “outdated” clubhouse really is. Gorou Mizazaki might not match his father’s gift for visual story-telling just yet, but this particular set piece proves his potential to become a creative and unique story-teller of his own.

The soundtrack and animation may be top-notch, but ultimately the most important aspect of the film is its romance; thankfully, the two leads are immensely likeable and their romance entirely believable.  Umi is a hard-working kid doing her best to take care of her family and think about her future after high school, but she is still clinging to the past because of the tragic death of her father. She’s a very sympathetic character, and her love interest Shun matches her likeability. In his very first scene, Shun demonstrates his natural charisma and passionate ideals by leaping off the clubhouse roof to protest the building’s proposed demolition, and throughout the film, his intensity about saving the clubhouse is sweetly offset by his awkward charm and genuine affection for Umi. Both Umi and Shun are fundamentally kind and principled people, and their shared past and moral values quickly deepen their relationship beyond the initial attraction.

Shun is the one to deliver the film’s overtly critical speech against Japan’s desire to ignore the past in favour of recklessly pursuing modernity, but Umi’s character arc also reinforces his speech, albeit more subtly. Shun’s arc is largely about his attempts to preserve the clubhouse and a kind of past cultural tradition, and while Umi instigates the cleaning of the clubhouse to help him, her arc focuses on her connection to a much more personal past. Despite knowing that her father died in the Korean War, Umi still raises flags every morning to guide his ship home, thoughtlessly repeating a ritual from her youth. She isn’t entirely sure why she continues to raise the flags, and yet she raises them anyway, trying to maintain some kind of connection to her past and her father, a sailor from a time when Japan didn’t know peace. By preserving the memory of her father, Umi subsequently preserves the memory of Japan’s military past, a past that the country’s government and politicians might wish to forget.

Like Umi, Shun’s life is also deeply influenced by his past. All of his life he has known he was adopted, but all he knows about his supposed father is the story of being left by him as a baby and the one photograph he also finds in Umi’s house. When not preoccupied with the clubhouse, Shun spends much of the film asking his taciturn father and Umi questions about the past, trying to understand the man who fathered and abandoned him. When his true background is finally revealed, Shun learns that he only survived as a baby because Umi’s father registered him as a part of the Matsuzaki family before ultimately giving him up for adoption. His backstory further illustrates the importance of understanding and belonging to a past and cultural identity greater than the individual. Because both characters must come to understand and honour their complicated and interconnected past while also learning how to move on from it, it makes perfect sense that they would fall for each other.

Another particularly refreshing aspect of their romance is the two leads’ honest and self-aware personalities. Both understand that they are attracted to the other and that the feeling appears to be mutual, so their relationship actually develops in a realistic and timely fashion, unlike so many hinted-at romances in anime. Here, there is no room for ambiguity, as both characters freely admit that they like the other within the first half of the film. Their relationship does face difficulties and stagnation caused by a mistaken belief that the two share a father, but at least it’s not because they are too shy or awkward to act on their obvious feelings. Their shared past, idealism, honesty, and forwardness make them a couple you want to actually see succeed, since they are so compatible in every way.

Of course, with the romance comes my only real issue with the film, which is the incest plot line. I am always annoyed and grossed out by anime’s fascination with incest, so it’s perhaps no surprise that the threat of incest was the only thing I remembered about this movie. Rewatching the film, I found myself cringing as I waited for the scene where the two confess their love despite their shared parentage, and sure enough, I still found it awkward this time around and wished the writers had removed or at least written that scene differently. However, as much as I’m still not a fan of aspects of this plot-line, I do think I understand what the film was trying to get at with their potentially incestuous relationship more than I did the first time, and that’s possibly because I’m more familiar with Japanese history and culture now than I was years ago.

From Up on Poppy Hill is set in the turbulent era of Japan’s reconstruction after WWII. When I first watched this film, I knew absolutely nothing about the period, so its historical commentary was lost on me. Since then, I’ve read a bit more history about how the post-WWII Japanese government (with American intervention) sought to redefine their national identity and move forward as a modern nation on par with the Western world, so rewatching the film with that knowledge gave me a much greater appreciation of the filmmakers’ intentions. While Shun’s multiple adoption story-line and his relation to Umi originally seemed contrived and like something from a soap opera (which Shun himself notes), I understand the significance of it a little better now. The film uses Shun’s muddled and forgotten family tree as a parallel for Japan’s lost past, and his attempts to discover his true parentage demonstrate the kind of reconstructive work the country ought to be doing, as opposed to his peers’ tendency to ignore the country’s past.

Likewise, the significance of the clubhouse and the debate over its ultimate fate completely went over my teenage head. I had thought it was a fairly boring plot to make the main focus of the film and the vehicle for the two romantic leads’ relationship. Watching it now, I realize the clubhouse represents the tension between past and future, between the older generation and the socially conscious youth. While the older generation (represented by the board of businessmen that dictate the school’s financial decisions) might see the clubhouse as wasted school property that ought to be used more efficiently, the younger generation recognize the vital history that will be lost if it is demolished. When asked what the astronomy club has “discovered” over ten years of students observing sunspots through a telescope, one of the members replies, “The sun is very old, and our lifespan is short.” The older generation sees the club’s existence in purely practical terms of use and “discovery,” while the students understand that there is value in preserving tradition and history purely to learn more about themselves. It is through observing and preserving the past that the youth can learn how best to steer their nation’s future.

From Up on Poppy Hill obviously doesn’t match the excitement and creativity of Studio Ghibli masterpieces like Castle in the Sky or Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind and consequently will never garner the same level of attention or praise as those films do in current anime criticism. However, the film’s more grounded tone doesn’t mean it should be forgotten or dismissed, as it memorably portrays Japan’s political history and navigates the tension between learning from the past and letting the future be bound by it. Combining these intellectual concerns with likeable characters, a convincing romance, beautiful animation, and an effective score, From Up on Poppy Hill is one of Studio Ghibli’s hidden gems. To anyone who felt the film was subpar or uninteresting, I encourage you to watch it again with a more critical eye. In retrospect, From Up on Poppy Hill is much better than I originally gave it credit for, and I can only hope Gorou Miyazaki one day earns the attention he has merited as the director of this film.

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