Japan, 1963. Umi is a teenage girl who helps to maintain a boarding house; every day she runs up a signal flag in the memory of her father, a sailor whose ship sank in the Korean War. At her high school, a clubhouse which is frequented by many of the male students faces demolition. Umi teams up with a charismatic boy named Shun to campaign for the beloved clubhouse to be spared – and in the process, discovers a shocking connection between Shun and her departed father.
From Up on Poppy Hill is the second feature from Goro Miyazaki, son of Studio Ghibli patriarch Hayao Miyazaki. Tales from Earthsea, his first film, was a bold effort but suffered from an awkward attempt to mix and match elements from a four-novel series; Poppy Hill, by contrast, is a more confident and satisfying outing.
Although Umi is the central character, this is above all a film about community. Umi belongs to two communities: the boarding house where she lives and works, and the high school at which she studies. Each location has its own set of characters who are well-defined even when their roles are small.
This is also a film about the importance of history. Umi honours her personal history – which, of course, ties into the national history of Japan, as her father was lost in a military conflict. In addition, one of the main reasons for the students to keep their clubhouse is that it is an old building, rich in history, and that its demolition would lead to a loss of the past.
At the same time, there is a subtext of keeping up with the times. To preserve their clubhouse, the students must chuck out junk, even if it has sentimental value. The setting of 1963 allows the preparation for the following year’s Tokyo Olympics to form part of the background detail; the film is set at a time when Japan looked back on its past while presenting itself to the modern world.
The sixties are, of course, remembered in the English-speaking world as a time of social upheaval. It is unclear from this film whether the decade has the same connotations in Japan, but winds of change can definitely be felt across Poppy Hill. Beneath the straight-laced exteriors of their militaristic gakuran uniforms (“they don’t look like radicals”, remarks a receptionist) the schoolboys are sizzling bundles of passion, energy and righteous outrage, willing to confront the establishment for the greater good.
At one point a fight breaks out at a meeting over the fate of the clubhouse; when a teacher comes to investigate, the boys hastily pretend to have been merely singing in unison, in what is apparently a traditional pursuit in Japanese high schools. The teacher smiles with approval and goes on his way. A charming moment, and From Up on Poppy Hill certainly has plenty of the charm which is a hallmark of Ghibli animation. A large amount of humour comes from the fact that girls are rarely seen in the clubhouse; as a result, the boys inside are sent into blushing fits when Umi and the other girls arrive to clean up their mess.
The film has plenty to offer fans of the studio, but it seems doubtful that this film will ever be one of the more popular Ghibli features. For a start, as a love-letter to Japan circa 1963, it is rooted so firmly in a particular period in Japanese history that some of its appeal will inevitably be lost on international audiences: although many of its themes are universal, much of the smaller detail is doubtless more culturally specific. There is also the fact that it is an unabashedly slow-burning film which is unafraid to sit back and let its world develop texture over time. The attention-grabbing storytelling and fantastic imagery of something like Princess Mononoke are absent here.
The Ghibli filmography has a definite hierarchy. At the top are the films which just about any fan of the studio will count amongst their favourites, such as My Neighbour Totoro, Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away and Grave of the Fireflies. Below this are the likes of Whisper of the Heart and My Neighbours the Yamadas, which have devout admirers but are not as universally loved as the others. From Up on Poppy Hill looks certain to join the latter rank.
Which, at the end of the day, is a testimony to Ghibli. Not every studio can boast a film this good as one of its lesser efforts.