From Up on Poppy Hill

Title: From Up on Poppy Hill
Japanese Title: Kokuriko-zaka Kara
Genre: Romance, Coming-of-age
Allegiance: Studio Ghibli
Director: Goro Miyazaki
Vintage: 2011


It’s the early 1960s, and Japan has recently been awarded the 1964 summer Olympic games. Umi Matsuzaki keeps house at the women’s boarding home on Poppy Hill run by her grandmother and takes care of her younger brother and sister since their father died in the Korean War and their mother is advancing her studies abroad in America. Umi has taken the death pretty hard – she still puts up flags on a pole every morning as a signal for her father’s safe return.  Apparently, one member of her high school’s Journalism club has taken notice and printed a poem to her in their latest edition.

The whole nation is swept up in reinventing itself and starting over for the Olympics, and the Konan Academy board of directors is no exception. The dilapidated old clubhouse, the “Latin Quarter,” is set to be demolished, and some of the club members of all the clubs housed therein will have nothing of it. During a demonstration, Shun Kazama of the Journalism club leaps from the building’s awning into an old pool, right over Umi. Their eyes briefly meet, and she gets up to help him out. As Shun is clearly drawn to her, she slowly begins warming to the different qualities he displays. Her pragmatism seals the deal for Shun, as her suggestion to take responsibility for and clean up the Latin Quarter rallies all of its tenants together. However, the fight for the building – as well as Umi and Shun’s budding relationship – is going to be more difficult than anyone could have imagined.

Overall 8.50

I went into this anime not really knowing what to expect. I had heard that Goro Miyazaki’s sophomore effort was better than his first, and that it was potentially the script written by his father, anime legend Hayao Miyazaki, that made exceeding the level of Tales of Earthsea an assumption rather than a question. I don’t know if all of that is true, but regardless, From Up on Poppy Hill took a now-standard crop of anime and general film tropes and turned them into an emotionally intense, immensely relatable film.

It was interesting, as the movie began, to see that it was based on a manga of the same name. Adaptations for Ghibli are just as common as original works, but what set this one apart was how much of the feel of the manga was still present. Groups of scenes felt slightly disparate in tone from others as the story developed from “chapter” to “chapter,” almost as they would have been in publication. I don’t feel like this detracted from the movie – it actually made it feel, to me, like a more authentic “manga-like” experience. On the flip side, the timeline of the story seems to be very muddled – Shun’s hand is fine in one scene, wrapped in the next, and fine the one after that. Then there’s some continuity confusion as the story refers, without specificity, to what I can only assume now were two different wars – WWII and the Korean War. Without those mix-ups, the viewing experience may have been a touch smoother.

The characters in this film didn’t seem to have very much depth to them aside from Umi and Shun, but still retained enough distinction to be memorable: the archaeology club trying to figure out ways to stay “cool,” the boisterous, loquacious lone Philosophy Club member, and the confident other member of the Journalism club that catches the eye of Umi’s boy-crazy sister, Sora. The boarders at Umi’s grandmother’s are similarly distinct and entertaining, if shallow.

Studio Ghibli movies always have interesting and unique soundtracks, and Poppy Hill is no exception. Ghibli newcomer Satoshi Takebe brings the jazz, swing, surfer, and 1960s Japanese pop music vibe to the party, and it really helps set the story in its time and place. The producers of the dub didn’t even see fit to translate a couple of the songs, which was a nice touch to help keep the immersion in the setting intact.

The English dub actors also all put in fine performances, possibly the best Ghibli dub to date. While in The Secret World of Arietty, it was only the title character’s voice actress that did a phenomenal job capturing the “spunk” often lost in translation in most dubs, the entire cast for Poppy Hill was up to the task, appropriate to their respective characters. Shun’s voice actor (Star Trek’s Anton Yelchin), as well as that of as his bespectacled fellow club member and class president, so far share a win for the “Appropriate-sounding dub performance for a teenage boy voice” award of 2013. Also of note is the dub script itself. It involves lots of really good one-liners that may or may not have been present in the original Japanese version, sometimes with a hint of anachronism (when did “cool” become slang? When did “facelift” become a term, or spread beyond the realm of plastic surgery?), but all in all the important parts of the story are all intact and the humor is a welcome relief from the heavy drama as the story unfolds.

The visuals are standard Ghibli, which is to say they’re as gorgeous, as fans of their work have come to expect. Ripe with painterly gardens, obsessively detailed clutter and cityscapes, and mostly-smooth animation, there’s very little to distract aside from the occasional clunky walking animation given to an extra in a scene. Another interesting choice on the part of the English adaptation staff – subtitles for important on-screen text are rendered in the same font used for the opening credit sequence. I found this particularly appropriate, and a much better choice than the same old black-outlined yellow or white text that anime fans are accustomed to.

One thing this movie absolutely excels at is connecting with the audience emotionally and twisting your heart to the point of tears. At the beginning of the film, Umi is a girl in grief who has too many other responsibilities in her life to be open to romance or even mourning. Over the course of the story, as each of these aspects develops, it helps to coax her way through the other, and the roller coaster that involves is portrayed through such poignantly displayed, written, and performed moments that any tears on the screen could easily be mimicked by at least some in the audience (or, at the very least, me). I was also impressed by the existence of casual pressures and assumptions about Shun and Umi from others, which whirl all around them as their story unfolds, unrelenting as the situation between the characters changes. Anyone who has ever had someone else know about their crush or relationship knows exactly how real this presence is. The way information in the story is revealed is also incredibly well-organized. The audience questions things as Umi questions them. The backstory of her father’s military friends plays out in perfectly timed and sized spurts.

On a thematic level, Poppy Hill is a two-sided coin. On the one hand, the story of the clubhouse is very interesting – adults seeking to erase the past and move on to the future are up against kids looking to preserve the past is a reversal of the usual age roles in stories. On the other, the rest of the movie revolves around a now-age-old trope of anime (saying which one would be doing this movie a grave disservice), but seeing as this anime is based on a manga from 1980 it’s hard to fault it for using such a trope.

From Up on Poppy Hill, for a still-growing director, is definitely a step in the right direction. The core of this movie lies in an adequate skeleton plot supporting one of the most concise and perfectly executed heart-wrenching tales of growing up found in anime.