From Up On Poppy Hill

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We’ve only seen Gendo Senki (Tales from Earthsea), Miyazaki Hayao’s son Goro’s first film, once, and prior to this, it was the most recent Ghibli film we had seen, having skipped out on Ponyo and Arriety (for the time being.) While repeated viewings are not a requisite for a film’s greatness as far as we’re concerned (sometimes, watching a great film just once can be enough), suffice it to say we don’t remember much about it, other than the fact we didn’t hate it. What drew us to this film was the promise that it was a relatively straightforward slice-of-life romance, not based on any beloved epic series with defensive authors and built-in skeptical fan bases. On its face, this film reminded us of perhaps our favorite Ghibli film, Kondou Yoshifumi’s Whisper of the Heart, the review for which you can read here.

We were immediately enthralled by Whisper’s fiercely beautiful picture of West Tokyo in the nineties, the intricately-detailed, loving depiction of life for a middle class family during in that time and place, and most importantly, the touching romance that developed between Shizuku and Seiji. “This is how it’s done,” we thought as we watched it. These are the heights anime is capable of.” With that lofty praise in mind, don’t think we’re bashing Up On Poppy Hill because it didn’t quite reach the soaring heights of Whisper. In fact, we urge any romance, Ghibli, or just plain anime fans to pick up a copy of Poppy Hill (we got a deal on the Blu-Ray through Amazon) and give it a watch as soon as you can. We found it to be an exceedingly lovely film.

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While many Ghibli films are portals to fantastical dimensions, Poppy Hill is a time machine to 1963, the year before Tokyo hosts the Olympics for the first time ever—and just eighteen years after the bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This means our protagonists—Umi and Shun—are of the postwar generation: not a party to the horrors of the past but well-versed in the scars their elders bear. To that end, old-style pre-war buildings all over the country are being torn down at a steady pace, as if they were contaminated by the past. One such building is the “Latin Quarter” – a magnificent but thoroughly-trashed French-style mansion on school grounds used as a headquarters for many of the school’s clubs. It’s the fight to save this house that brings Umi and Shun together.

From the beginning we see that Umi is a strong, hardworking no-nonsense young lady; even her bouncy little side braids suggest she’s somewhat “tightly wound”. She’s the first to wake up to cook for her family and the boarders who share her house, which is perched upon a hill overlooking the harbor. She is haunted by the loss of her father, a sailor killed aboard a supply ship in the Korean War, and raises flags every morning as a message to him that is never answered. When a poem in the school newspaper mentions her flags, she seeks out the author, just as Shizuku sought out the guy who checked out the same library books as her. Her first face-to-face encounter with the boy is when he jumps out of the house into a pool, and she reflexively offers him a helping hand, not thinking how it would look to the assembled masses of her peers.

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Umi’s grandmother is worried Umi is working too hard for everyone and not looking after her own happiness, while dwelling too much on the loss of her father. She hopes Umi will meet someone to help her find that happiness…and she does. It’s fun to watch her step into another world—at the behest of her little sister, who wants Shun’s autograph—as the two brave the appallingly filthy and chaotic Latin Quarter to find him. Where before she had been content with her studies and house duties and not interested in boys, her first taste of that world changes her mind in a hurry, and she’s smitten. For his part, Shun, while having a reputation for being a “live wire”, is never anything but respectful, warm, and chivalrous to Umi.

It’s Umi who first plants the kernel of an idea in Shun and the leaders of the Quarter that if it were cleaned up, prepare and made into a place where guys and girls alike would want to be, perhaps the demolition ball could be stayed. The film, like us, is firmly on the side of those who don’t want the building to go. Poppy Hill doesn’t just excel at portraying an utterly gorgeous slice of Japan’s past in terms of the buildings and bustling seaside vistas, but in the pulse of the youth of the moment, angered by their elders’ insistence on erasing history and culture to make themselves feel better. The debate over the Quarter is charged with passion, and Umi is in the back of the hall, soaking it all up.

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The campaign to beautify the Quarter is initiated, and like Kiki’s room at the bakery or Howl’s Moving Castle, once it’s cleaned up, it’s a much more welcoming and comfortable-looking place, rather than a dank cave. But as things look up for the Quarter, after a visit to Umi’s house when she shows Shun a photo of her father, there’s a distinct change in Shun, and he starts avoiding her. She can’t make out what’s eating him, even though we do. When she finally confronts him, he tells her: they’re brother and sister. Umi’s dejection after learning this truth may be more subtle than, say, Shizuku’s, but no less powerfully felt; as even the mundane tasks she used to take pride become a struggle with such dispiritedness hanging over her.

Siblings or no, the two remain friends and follow through with the Save the Quarter campaign, traveling to Tokyo and waiting in a hall way for many hours to speak to the man who will decide the building’s fate, and indeed already has, not knowing the transformation it’s undergone. Umi’s unassuming, earnest appeal instantly impresses the man, who agrees to an immediate inspection tour. The students pull out all the stops welcoming him, and the vastly-improved state of the building, as well as the enthusiasm of the kids themselves, compel him to change his mind.

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That same day, Shun gets word news from his adoptive father: the third man in the photo is aboard ship in the harbor, who confirms that Umi and Shun had different fathers, the two others in that photo. Umi and Shun aren’t related by blood, which is good, because they’re in love with each other. Is this ending quite neat and tidy, and all the twists and turns somewhat soap opera-y? Perhaps, but because we were so emotionally invested in Umi and Shun, and held out hope Shun was mistaken about their lineage, it didn’t bother us. We didn’t think it would’ve necessarily been a better film had they been deprived of a happy life together, any more than if the Quarter had been torn down.

A powerful idea Umi conveys in her confession to Shun on a streetcar platform stuck with us throughout the rest of the film: all the while she’d been raising those flags up on the hill, Shun was responding with flags on his dad’s tug, only she never had the angle to see them. Now that she knows about them, she decided to believe her father answered the flags too: by sending Shun into her life. Her long wait was over: no longer a girl living only for a day that would never come—the day her father returned—she found a place in her heart for someone new—someone alive—and discovered how new and exciting and nice life could be when you’re in love. We discovered that Ghibli has a bright future. This is how it’s done.

9_superiorRating: 9 (Superior)

Stray Observations:

  • The hallmark of every Ghibli film is a constant feeling of “I want to go to there,” and Poppy is no different.
  • While it lacked the sublime soaring orchestrations that are another Ghibli hallmark, we were really into the period-specific soundtrack. It was at times moving, soulful, joyful, and downright toe-tapping.
  • We’ll also fully admit to having our heartstrings tugged on on numerous occasions; there was nothing shallow or forced about any of the drama; we felt Umi’s pain and frustrations and often teared up when she teared up.
  • On the note of Ghibli tropes is the dream that starts with a girl walking along, crying in a golden field, which dates back to Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, which turns thirty this year (our review of that here.)
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