Ghibli Month: From Up on Poppy Hill

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Welcome back to our last installment of Ghibli Month, where we look at one Studio Ghibli Movie every weekend in the month of December. This weekend we’ll be looking at From Up on Poppy Hill, a movie based on a serialized comic of the same name with the screenplay written by Hayao Miyazaki. This is also the second movie directed by Goro Miyazaki, Hayao Miyazaki’s son, and also one of the few Ghibli movies to focus more on slice of life elements without their recognizable touch of fantasy. Set in post-war, 1960s Japan, From Up on Poppy Hill looks at the value of preserving history and centers around a melodramatic love story between two teens whose lives have been heavily affected by both World War II and the Korean War.

If you haven’t had the chance to watch From Up on Poppy Hill, here’s a quick synopsis:

Every morning Umi raises signal flags over the port of Yokohama praying for safe voyages before going inside to take care of her family and other boarders. One day, a poem appears in the school paper that features her flags, sparking a sense of drama and mystery within her and her friends. She happens to meet the author of the poem soon after when he jumps from the roof of a club building into a pool of water in a stunt to protest the building’s destruction. His name is Shun, a member of the journalism club who winds up recruiting Umi to help with their newspaper. Seeing the value in the ramshackle clubhouse full of history, Umi joins Shun in trying to appeal to the school board to save it. Their first step? Clean it from floor to ceiling, a task much harder than it sounds. But in the process, will feelings between the charming Shun and Umi be kindled?

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While not having any of the fantasy elements that are commonly associated with Studio Ghibli, From Up on Poppy Hill still displays their quintessential style of animation and world design. With the help of his father, Goro Miyazaki gives this 1960s setting new life through immense detail and color that is almost reminiscent of Howl’s Moving Castle’s aesthetic. You’ll see this especially clear when you get to scenes involving the club house where the characters created this place made up of small add-ons to a much larger building. It reminded me a lot of how Miyazaki designed Howl’s castle with rooms seemingly attached randomly, the whole place full of just stuff everywhere. With the amount of detail put into all of the random stuff too, it creates a world full of history and culture that quickly becomes charming. This was also the year that Tokyo hosted the Olympics, and we see this reflected everywhere in the story, from the small posters in the background to larger plot points such as the reasoning behind the club house being torn down. When you add these into the larger world, it becomes a fleshed out place that really does harken back to a post-war era Japan, full of rapid growth and rising westernization.

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I think one of the biggest problems with the animation and design in this movie, though, would have to be the character design. I realize that this based off of a manga and they need to at least get as close as they can to the original character design, but I think we lose some of what makes Ghibli Movies so great in the process. I’ve said in previous reviews this month that one of the major aspects that I would say Ghibli and Miyazaki in particular is known for are the highly recognizable and unique characters. In this case, I felt that many characters look too similar and didn’t have the same impact that even Whisper of the Heart managed, it being one of the other slice of life geared movies from this studio. Umi and Shun didn’t really have anything that made them stand out from the rest of the characters in the movie, and while I still think the variety of character designs is better than a lot of modern anime, it just doesn’t hold up to their previous movies. Maybe this has to do with Goro being the director this time and trying to make a style all his own separate from his father, but if it wasn’t for the backgrounds and other art throughout, this movie might have just had a “meh” feeling for me.

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The music also becomes a central part of creating this 1960s setting. Satoshi Takebe produced a lot of great period-esque music with a jazzy touch that gives a great feeling to the overall world. They also chose to include one of the big hits from 1963, “Sukiyaki” by Kyu Sakamoto, to really cement into the viewers the era this movie takes place in. While some of the details included in the world could be looked over and could lead to some viewers thinking the setting was in a much later year than intended, I think by including music such as “Sukiyaki” and others in that 60’s style really helps to drive home both Goro’s vision and the original intended feel of the story.

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One of the major points of this movie is the character’s relationship with the past and how they both try to preserve it and move on from it. The club house is a great example of this, combining both huge amounts of history and added modifications from various new students. The building itself is an amalgam of different rooms, add-ons, and students who have tried to leave their mark on something important to them. The philosophy club room, for instance, is just a curtained stand built right into the wall of the hallway. But to the president, it’s a part of their club “philosophy” per se that their members don’t need an actual club room, all they need is their minds. When we turn our attention to the journalism club, we see an even better example of trying to preserve history through their stacks of old tests and newspapers that pile up everywhere. Some of those tests go back to students long since graduated. Though they are collected in an effort to predict future tests, I think the meaning still stands as it joins it with the collective hoarding of the building residents. The vast accumulation of dust, dirt, and old stuff is, to them, a way of preserving the past and the history of previously graduated students and presidents. Much like how the earth’s layers each carry a history, the layers of dirt in the club house have their own stories to tell the students there.

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When Umi calls in the girls to help clean the club house, we not only see the girls develop an appreciation for what the “Latin Quarter” represents but we also see the boys begin to move on from the past. There is this undercurrent through this movie of fear that looking towards the future will mean forgetting the past, and I think with these scenes we see that doesn’t necessarily have to be the case. The students both managed to preserve the history of the club house and previous students while making their mark on it for the future. We also see them bring in alumni to help with the repairs, students who had gone on to work in construction and other jobs around Yokohama. In this way, they are also mixing the past and the future to create something new for the present students and incoming students as well.

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We also see some of this same feeling in Umi’s daily ritual of raising the flags every morning. While I would say this is more continuous mourning for the loss of her father, but there still some elements of trying to preserve and remember the past. Umi’s father was killed in the Korean War when his supply transport ship hit a mine. He was the one who taught her the language of signal flags and she would raise them when she was little in an effort to bring her father home safely, much like a prayer sent into the sky. After his death, the raising of the flags not only became a cemented compulsion but also her way of mourning and giving remembrance to her father. After Shun pretty much leaps into her life we see a kind of disruption of this routine when she starts raising different flags in response to his poem. His entrance into her life provides her the chance to begin to move on from the past while still honoring her father’s memory through her use of signal flags.

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The love story between Shun and Umi is one of the other major points in this story, but I really don’t think it can measure up to previous Ghibli movies especially Howl’s and Whisper of the Heart. There was a lot of melodrama surrounding their story, something that I would expect more in a soup opera at points. In general, their romance is good, but there is definitely a lot of points that could have been expanded on and drama that could have been toned down (or maybe even toned up if they were stuck on using it). For one, Shun is painted as this kind of annoying boy who is willing to do stupid stunts in order to make a point. At this point, I felt like Goro could have played up this fact and made the development of their relationship more of a challenge. As it stands, Shun turns out to be very charming and their feelings for each other grow quickly through the beginning of the movie. The road block that makes this a little better is when Shun finds out he might be Umi’s brother, and we begin to get a little bit of that push-back on their relationship, something for them to overcome in order to be together. There have been other animes that have managed to tell this plot better, ramping up the drama and showing the pain the characters go through in the process of reconciling their feelings, but here it just feels lack luster. Shun does have some trouble with it as we see him begin to ignore Umi after he finds out, but in the end, they both readily accept their feelings before finding out they’re not actually related. It did feel like their romance was supposed to be a major part of the movie, but was not given the attention it deserved in favor of the overall setting and other story arcs.

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There were also some other bits in the story that could definitely have been improved, mainly around their father’s histories. When Shun finds out who his actual father is, he is told to rush over to this ship where the captain can explain exactly who he is. But when he gets there, the conversation takes all of maybe five or ten minutes. We didn’t really get a feel for who he was the same way we got a feel for Umi’s father. We were just kind of told how he died and a tiny bit about his personality and that was it.

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While I don’t think I like this movie as much as Whisper of the Heart, it is unique in its display of a vibrant and detailed 1960’s, post-war Yokohama whose characters were caught up in the confusion and loss that followed World War II and the Korean War. It doesn’t have some of the aspects that make up a typical Ghibli aesthetic, but does feature pretty great art and music that helps tie this movie together. The melodrama was a little bit of a draw back for me, but I did enjoy the movie especially when it focused on the club house and all the various characters within.

I hope you all had a great New Year and enjoyed this break from my regular posts. I’ll be returning to this next December one more time, so be sure to stick around or hit that follow button to get regular updates. Regular Saturday and Wednesday updates will return starting this Saturday, so stay tuned!

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