Nov 10, 2013
tehnominator (All reviews)
Miyazaki Goro's sophomore attempt at directing proves that he can stand apart from his legendary father, but perhaps he is still walking in the shadow of the behemoth Studio Ghibli. Yet his recent work does not back down in its fight to earn a place in their legacy.

From Up on Poppy Hill gives us the standard we expect from a Ghibli film: beautiful art, consistent and vibrant animation complementing stories and characters with either a whole lot of heart or charm and sometimes both. But while Miyazaki makes all the right steps, he has a long way to go to give us something that is clearly his, something that makes us say "That's a Goro film". While every Ghibli movie feels like a distinctly magical journey, this one never quite gets there. Yet where it's headed is nowhere bad at all.

Set in the post-war, pre-Olympics 1960s Japan, From Up on Poppy Hill successfully re-creates a time and place where the protagonists Umi and Shun meet and fall in love. Their hesitant romance does not come without life's complications. They meet for the first time twice; once, as Shun and Umi unknowingly communicate to one another through Umi's maritime flags, and again at school where daringly, Shun makes a bold and stupid move to save the school's clubhouse. There seems to be a shared destiny, as Shun travels on his father's tugboat every morning, seeing raised flags trying to find a lost soul, and as Umi reaches down into a pool to accept his hand as he emerges. However, they both come to learn that their paths have crossed even before their meeting. While their romance is sweet, shy at times and quiet, there is a secret between their families that forces them both to acknowledge and accept that they should not continue with one another. They cannot help but fall in love anyway.

Miyazaki portrays life's disruptions and joys with gentility. Even though the twists and turns are the subject of ridiculous soap operas, Miyazaki's respectful handling of the feelings and characters involved creates a different experience. What could be seen as trite, ends up as palpable, never overwrought drama. Although the way things neaten up happily by the end seems to be too easy a resolution. The secret involves an actually compelling issue that could have been explored further, but the safest neatest way is the route chosen.

Umi and Shun manage as likeable and sweet characters, though they don't exceed our expectations of them. The other supporting characters give life to the film and they all occupy a space that feels very much like it's theirs. Without them, there'd be no personality in the boarding house, school and town. Despite being worthwhile extras, they aren't memorable side characters (like the old woman from My Neighbour Totoro or the artist in the woods from Kiki's Delivery Service). The film resolves to let them be adequate, not exceptional.

As aforementioned, From Up on Poppy Hill has been Ghibli-stamped and approved for its visual quality. Despite having a montage sequence with still shots (which seems to be very much contrary to Studio Ghibli's reputation for painstaking detail and excellence), the entire film looks spectacular.While it does not boast the stunning scope of the Ghibli epics or the fantastical vision of the others or even the technical genius, it has the quiet, solid sensibilities of movies like Whisper of the Heart and Only Yesterday. In fact, this film might take you right back to Whisper of the Heart, Kondou Yoshifumi's great masterpiece. (Although Umi and Shun's romance does not hit the highs of Shizuku and Seiji's; perhaps due to Shizuku being such a strong, charismatic and compelling protagonist, while Umi is less powerful and effective as a lead). We remember from Only Yesterday the stagnant beautiful countryside, we remember from Whisper of the Heart the urban sprawl of a modern city, and in From Up on Poppy Hill, we find a Yokohama and its beautiful seaside in the midst of industrial growth and change.

The one place where From Up on Poppy Hill disappoints is its music. Ghibli films tend to boast timelessly powerful scores and soundtracks. The music here tries to invoke a sense of place and time. While this works marvelously in some cases (for instance, the use of Sakamoto Kyu's eternally lovely classic "Ue o Muite Arukou"), it misses in many others. Some tracks just seem to undo the overall atmosphere and the results are noticeable.

Miyazaki's vision is much more focussed for this film as compared to Tales from Earthsea, a project that from even its conception was problematic. From Up on Poppy Hill is more relaxed in tone, and perhaps this was Miyazaki's own stance to his film-making. What I said earlier about the characters can perhaps be said about the film itself: it is adequate, though not exceptional.

From Up on Poppy Hill is a definite must-watch for those disappointed with Miyazaki Goro. The film shows how much he has grown as a filmmaker. This is a satisfying little movie. Maybe his next attempt will give us something a bit more fulfilling. Certainly this taste has left us hungering for more from this director. You're certainly not going to watch this film condemning it for not being like his father's art and you won't watch it and think it's like his father's work either. It doesn't feel like a Hayao film or a Takahata film. It's not trying to be. Goro and Yonebayashi (director of Arrietty) have their work cut out for them to leave their signatures on their movies, but given time, perhaps their vision will become clearer.

In the meantime, Miyazaki Goro shall walk looking up.