Review: From Up on Poppy Hill (2011)

5

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Cast: Masami Nagasawa, Junichi Okada, Keiko Takeshita
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Country: Japan
Genre: Animation | Drama | Family
Official Trailer: Here


Editor’s Note: From Up on Poppy Hill opens in limited release on Friday, March 15th

It’s fitting that the shadow of a father should hang so heavily over a film by Goro Miyazki; son of Hayao, co-founder of Studio Ghibli and revered director of some of the celebrated animation studio’s hugest hits, Goro’s entry to the world of filmmaking with 2006’s Tales from Earthsea could hardly have come shrouded in higher expectations. From Up on Poppy Hill is his follow-up to that ill-received debut, a 1960s-set tale of the teenage Umi, a lively girl whose father’s death in the Korean War she commemorates every day with the raising of flags outside the boarding house which she runs with her grandmother and younger siblings. Umi’s father’s absence hangs over the film like a dark cloud, a sombre reminder of the past as the story—that of Umi and her friends’ efforts to halt the destruction of their clubhouse—sees Japan steadily move toward the future.

Caught at the crossroads of past and future, Umi and her schoolmates—as the country’s next generation—represent in their efforts to salvage this bastion of national culture the necessity to preserve particular identity while re-entering onto the world stage

poppy3Framed here and there against contemporary events, most notably Tokyo’s preparation for the 1964 Olympic Games, From Up on Poppy Hill invokes an effective sense of community and camaraderie, capturing the atmosphere of a post-war Japan and reflecting it ably in these teens’ efforts to save their clubhouse. Caught at the crossroads of past and future, Umi and her schoolmates—as the country’s next generation—represent in their efforts to salvage this bastion of national culture the necessity to preserve particular identity while re-entering onto the world stage; Japan, wounded by the war and the negative image the rest of the world then widely retained of it, had to forge a way forward without losing too much of its own essence. This political undercurrent is the heart of the film, and the source of the majority of its strengths as it juxtaposes the difficulties of this one girl against the issues of her nation.

There’s an elegiac majesty to Umi as she hoists these flags each morning, silently saluting her fallen father—and all the fallen Japanese—with a solemn dignity befitting the mourning nation at large. It’s the film’s biggest issue that it can’t scale down this greater thematic concern into the character’s personal conflicts, her budding romance with the school’s newspaper editor little more than a trivial distraction from the movie’s more interesting avenues. Miyazaki—both Goro and Hayao, in fact, the latter having worked on the script—makes a likeable pair of these characters, but theirs is a simple relationship, complicated only by a rather misjudged conceit that seems, if only briefly, to steer the film toward strange territory.

It’s the film’s biggest issue that it can’t scale down this greater thematic concern into the character’s personal conflicts, her budding romance with the school’s newspaper editor little more than a trivial distraction from the movie’s more interesting avenues.

poppy4The Ghibli team—as evidenced by those of their films which have found fondest reception—is at its strongest when working in the realms of fantasy, their intricate attention to detail bringing to life vibrantly imaginative worlds and creatures. In choosing to remain firmly rooted in reality, From Up on Poppy Hill attains an aura of more whimsy than wonder, its gentle humour and relative realism less likely to inspire awe than it is mild amusement. That’s not to denigrate for a second the ever-astonishing work of these gifted animators, who bring to life—in every background detail and each lively deviation of their colour palette—this setting with vivid success, but rather to say that—not aimed with the benefit of exploring some exciting escapist fantasy—the cracks in the film’s story are far quicker to show.

There’s a brief dream sequence toward the end that beautifully encapsulates in a mere moment exactly the film’s most lamentable failing: Umi, weeping loudly, walks toward her house in a frame of distorted imagery, the lines that constitute her surroundings moving about as though alive and animate with film grain. The young Miyazaki, yet an amateur in his craft—though a promising one, demonstrably—hasn’t quite succeeded in tailoring the peculiarities of his form to the requirements of his narrative. From Up on Poppy Hill’s acute awareness of history and determination to emphasise its importance gives it the same strength of purpose its characters lack; the slightness of its story finds salvation in the commendable aspirations of its wider contextual role.

[notification type=”star”]67/100 ~ OKAY. From Up on Poppy Hill’s acute awareness of history and determination to emphasise its importance gives it the same strength of purpose its characters lack; the slightness of its story finds salvation in the commendable aspirations of its wider contextual role. [/notification]

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About Author

Ronan Doyle is an Irish freelance film critic, whose work has appeared on Indiewire, FilmLinc, Film Ireland, FRED Film Radio, and otherwhere. He recently contributed a chapter on Arab cinema to the book Celluloid Ceiling, and is currently entangled in an all-encompassing volume on the work of Woody Allen. When not watching movies, reading about movies, writing about movies, or thinking about movies, he can be found talking about movies on Twitter. He is fuelled by tea and has heard of sleep, but finds the idea frightfully silly.

  • A splendid little film, but surely a minor film from Studio Ghibli.

  • Ronan

    Exactly, it’s a real enjoyable romp, but I’m already starting to forget it. Nothing much stand-out about it.

  • Have you seen Whisper of the Heart? Now there is a under the radar special film.

  • Ronan

    I haven’t, though I read a review of Poppy Hill where it was mentioned as an underseen Ghibli great. I must confess I’m less familiar with the studio than I should be, only seen Grave of the Fireflies, My Neighbour Totoro, and Ponyo. Oh, and Ocean Waves, but nobody ever even knows what that is (and with good reason).

  • Ahh a rare blind spot for you. When you get a moment Whisper of the Heart, Spirited Away, and Princess Mononoke are must sees.
    Totoro is such a delight!