Synopsis: Umi (voiced by Sarah Bolger) lives with her grandmother and sisters in a boarding house overlooking the harbor. Her mother is studying in America; her father died in the Korean War. Still, very morning she hoists naval flags, so that her father might see them and return home. At heart, she still has the innocence and naivety of a child, even though she displays a practical wisdom beyond her years. Umi transfers this hope and longing to Shun (voiced by Anton Yelchin), one of the boys at her school. Together, they try to save the school’s ramshackle clubhouse, the Latin Quarter. [English Version]
Release Date: March 15, 2013 MPAA Rating: PG-13
Genre(s): Animation, Foreign
The surprise in From Up on Poppy Hill is that it was directed by a Miyazaki but not Hayao. Rather the 72-year old Studio Ghibli founder’s son, Goro, carries on the family legacy in his first collaboration with his father. Hayao Miyazaki, however, is still credited for the screenplay, which poses a marked shift from Ghibli classics. The story of Umi and Shun stands apart from previous Ghibli endeavors in its realistic setting – Yokohama, 1963 – and the absence of supernatural elements. For all intents and purposes, From Up on Poppy Hill is a romance, plain and simple. It’s the story of a girl grappling with first love, the loss of her father, and the questions and anxieties surrounding her future in a striking interplay between the romanticism of the past and the progress of the future.
Umi first and foremost seeks closure with her father. He unexpectedly died on a navy ship during the Korean War, and she has since been unable to let him go. It is clear that part of this clinging to the past is the result of the responsibilities thrust upon such a young child. Umi is still a teenager, but with the absence of her mother, she is responsible for the smooth running of the house – the cooking, cleaning, and even the welfare of her grandmother and sisters. That is a lot of pressure on her young shoulders. It is understandable that she would want to return to a time when her father was alive and she could be an uncaring child. Shun reminds her of her father in two ways: he looks and sounds exactly like him and he can decipher the messages in her flags.
The charm of From Up on Poppy Hill is unleashed full force once the central story of saving the school’s dilapidated clubhouse begins. In 1963, Japan is preparing for the Summer Olympics. Umi and Shun’s school joins the rest of the country in tearing down old buildings and remnants of the past to make way for the new. That includes the Latin Quarter. Like the floating bathhouse in Spirited Away, the Latin Quarter is a structure teeming with character, unfolding in every direction with laboratories and studios filled with its bohemian members. This set piece is the highlight of the film, and it is the embodiment of the natural wonder of the Studio Ghibli world. The film is able to bring such romanticism to, comparatively, an everyday setting. The Latin Quarter houses the school’s psychology club, chemistry club, newspaper, etc. whose members argue for the conservation of an important part of the school’s history and its cultural hub. A nod to the struggles of maintaining cultural identity in the face of a rapidly modernizing world, the film depicts a painful tension between Japanese authorities’ desire to erase haunting memories of World War II and the Korean War and Umi and Shun’s nostalgia.
While From Up On Poppy Hill may not be as visually inventive or fantastical as previous Studio Ghibli films, it is nonetheless a joy to watch. Its themes may be more contentious than My Neighbor Totoro, but it plays well as a portrait of two teenagers trying to reconcile their identities. It is a testament to Miyazaki that the film allows for the charm of teenage emotions and first love to shine through amidst the melodrama and its commentary on Japan’s road to progress.
Studio Ghibli is praised worldwide for its stylized animation and extreme attention to detail. From Up on Poppy Hill continues this tradition of detail, and even requires more attention, in its depiction of 1960’s Japan. Compared to the extremes to which Ghibli has gone in previous films, From Up on Poppy Hill may seem underwhelming, but the film brings a quiet realism to what is effectively an uneventful narrative. It is a testament to Miyazaki and Ghibli that the film is still highly entertaining and visually immersive. The cramped streets, the old printing press, and the vegetables stored underneath the floorboards all show the animators’ ability to imbue simple, daily activities with fascinating detail. The film and its visuals are thoroughly subtle but nonetheless captivating. From the waves on Yokohama harbor to the sizzling oil of a frying pan, From Up on Poppy HillCast and Crew