Directed by: Goro Miyazaki.
Written by: Hayao Miyazaki & Keiko Niwa based on the comic by Tetsurô Sayama and Chizuru Takahashi.
One of the great things about the work of Hayao Miyazaki is that although his movies are often fantasies, they remain grounded in the real world. Yes, his films are filled with wizards and witches, floating castles, spirits and all sorts of strange creatures, but when at their most basic level, they are still relatable stories for children, that address their lives in a subtle, sometime sad, sometimes joyous ways. The new film From Up on Poppy Hill was not directed by Hayao Miyazaki – although it was written and “planned” by him – but his son, Goro Miyazaki. The apple has not fallen far from the tree this time. And From Up on Poppy Hill is more grounded in reality that any of the older Miyazaki’s films – no mystical creatures exist here at all. It tells the haunting, beautiful and sad story of a Japan intent on building its future by tearing down its past.
The film takes place in the early 1960s – specifically in the run-up to the 1964 Tokyo Olympics – although the film doesn’t take place in Tokyo, and we see no games, the Olympics, and what they represented serve as a metaphor for the entire film. As a nation, Japan wanted to press forward, modernize, exorcise or at least forget about the war that had crippled their country. The same thing is happening on a smaller scale in a small town.
The heroine (and there is always a heroine in Japanese animation, a refreshing change to the male dominated heroes in American animation) in Umi, a teenage girl who still misses her father – a ship captain killed in the Korean war. Her mother is away studying, which leaves Umi at home with a grandmother, younger siblings and quite a few kindly, yet eccentric, boarders. She is constantly busy – but she likes it that way.
At school, there is a mini-war brewing as the school wants to tear down the old, rundown clubhouse – used by many male members to house their various clubs, ranging from the school newspaper to astronomy club, to a very large student who makes up the Philosophy club of one. The place is a dirty mess, and the school wants to replace it with something new. But the students who use the clubhouse love it – they feel it connects them to the past. Umi it gets drawn into their fight, when she develops a crush on Shun, and the two dance around each other in that way that young teenagers who don’t quite know how to express themselves do. But there are darker secrets yet to be revealed. From Up on Poppy Hill, although outwardly a sweet, innocent film, is also one haunted by war and death.
I cannot think of a higher compliment to pay to the film than to say that I could easily believe it was a Hayao Miyazaki film. The animation of the film is beautiful, rendering the smallest details – the leaves, the flags that Umi raises every morning, etc. with detail and a sad beauty. The film will likely be a little slow for young children – the story doesn’t feel the need to rush, to be loud and noisy and all constant motion and action like American animated films. It takes it’s time getting where it’s going. Older children will likely appreciate how the movie doesn’t talk down to them – and while the film has dark moments, it’s the type of darkness that isn’t going to scare children. They can relate.
And adults, who love animation, will love the film. It is a beautiful, lovely film – and a nostalgic one. We shouldn’t tear down the past to make way for the future – as this beautiful, haunting sad film shows us.