From Goro Miyazaki (son of anime legend Hayao Miyazaki) comes From Up on Poppy Hill, the latest feature length anime from Studio Ghibli. Every new release from the much revered Japanese studio is greeted with excitement, and Poppy Hill is no different. The film has only recently received a limited theatrical release in the UK (it debuted in Japan in 2011), but British Ghibli fans were there to greet it.
Sixteen year old schoolgirl Umi Matsuzaki (voiced by Sarah Bolger in the English language dub) lives in Yokohama in 1963. Umi’s father, captain of a cargo ship, was killed in the Korean War; she raises naval flags every day to keep his memory alive. Her mother is studying medicine in America, so she lives with her younger siblings at her grandmother’s boarding house, helping to run it. Umi’s busy life changes when she meets fellow student Shun (Anton Yelchin), gets involved with the school paper, and spearheads a plan to save the student clubhouse from demolition. Umi and Shun begin to develop feelings for each other, but their tangled pasts and current responsibilities threaten to divide them forever.
As we have come to expect from the studio, the film’s visuals – while not on a par with the lush landscapes of Ghibli’s more fantastical offerings – are a delight to behold. The bustling city of Yokohama is contrasted with the expanse of nearby ocean, itself often bustling with passing ships and fishing boats. The swirling yellow-red fire of an explosion expertly engulfs the viewer, while the student club house is charmingly jam-packed with bits and bobs (reminiscent of the hoarder’s paradise that was Howl’s Moving Castle, but with fewer magical instruments and more piles of old newspapers). Food related visuals also make their presence felt – it’s not a real Ghibli film unless our mouths are set watering at least twice; chopped vegetables and deep fried fish have never looked so good.
The film falls down a little when it comes to story. Adapted from a comic by Hayao Miyazaki, Poppy Hill centres on the classic Ghibli trope of progress vs. tradition, and attempts to find a workable balance between the two. All well and good, but the plot begins to verge dangerously on melodrama once the complications regarding the shared history of Umi and Shun are revealed. These developments seem a little incongruous in an animation film, even in one produced by a studio known for unconventionality. Thankfully, the film just about pulls back from the edge of the ridiculous.
From Up on Poppy Hill is being referred to as a ‘minor’ Ghibli. It has none of the extra special zing of the really big hitters, such as Ponyo or breakthrough Oscar winner Spirited Away – in other words, no whimsical monsters or spectacular magic. But Poppy Hill succeeds in bringing together some of the more subtle themes prevalent in Ghibli features; quiet family values, emotional depth, anti-war sensibilities, and a sense of hope for the future, even when surrounded by the ruins of the past.