Legendary Studio Ghibli director Hayao Miyazaki reportedly didn’t believe his son, Goro, was ready to direct Tales of Earthsea in 2006. For many, the result proved him right. Seven years later (or five, if we go by Japanese release dates), father and son have collaborated (Hayao as co-writer; Goro as director) on From Up on Poppy Hill, and it’s clear that the younger man has moved a little closer to his father’s stamp of quality.
It could be argued that this stately, gentle film – which follows a young girl who has lost her father to the Korean War in early 1960s Japan – lacks the sheer imagination and verve of some of Studio Ghibli’s other pictures, but that argument would be missing the point. This is a good-natured story of young love which deals with surprisingly adult issues, albeit in an entirely family-friendly way. Goro Miyazaki directs it without flair, but that is in keeping with the subject matter. Perhaps this will be remembered as one of the Japanese animation studio’s ‘smaller’ films, but that is to take nothing away from its wonderfully simple, delightfully told story.
Our heroine is Umi, a 16-year-old student living in Yokohama who becomes involved in a campaign to save an old building from demolition by a development firm. The country is gearing up to host the 1964 Olympic Games, and there is a tension between maintaining the culture of the past and ‘moving forwards’ to get Japan ready for the games. Because the film is aimed at all ages, this idea – and indeed most of the more adult themes – is dealt with in a fairly placid way, but the way the film combines serious, thoughtful ideas with its light tone and beautiful, idyllic locales is part of the joy of From Up on Poppy Hill.
There will be those who consider the more challenging aspects of the film to have been neutered by its broad appeal, but I did not find that to be the case. If anything, I found the opposite to be true; that somehow the genteel story and, if you like, simple narrative, worked to create an utterly endearing and subtly moving portrayal of both the country and its people. There is a clear message here about understanding and respecting the past in order to move into the future, represented by both the central couple and the building they’re trying to save. In keeping with the film’s tone there isn’t really a ‘bad guy’ as such, and no real conflict – it tells its story with the calm resolve of something that knows where it is going, and how to get there.
The film begins as if it were a musical, but seems to forget about that after the first song, and it’s a long time before we get any more singing. There are a couple of musical bits in here that are nicely done in themselves – not particularly essential to the feel of the film, but not in the way either. A couple of renditions of the Japanese song ‘Sukiyaki’ are actually unexpectedly touching.
I saw the Japanese version of the film, so cannot comment on the quality of the English language dub. I can only hope that the US voice cast, as is usually the case with Studio Ghibli translations, have done justice to the material. Sarah Bolger and Anton Yelchin star as the central couple in the English dub, in the roles originally played by Masami Nagasawa and Junichi Okada. The wider soundtrack, like the voice acting and the script, is full of life and spirit, and the animation, while reserved by Ghibli standards, is still lovely to behold.
From Up on Poppy Hill is hopefully the beginning of a long and successful career for Miyazaki junior, and it will make much more of an impact than Tales of Earthsea did. If this Ghibli creation is smaller in scale than many of the company’s films, it certainly doesn’t lack for heart or soul. I was swept away in it.