With the visual sensibilities of a Monet painting brought to life, the warm, soft animation of Studio Ghibli’s From Up on Poppy Hill recalls an age long since passed for the genre. It’s the simple beauty of the film that stands as one of its strongest aspects, and likewise the melancholy grace mirrored in some of the story elements. That’s why it’s such a shame that not everything comes together, as far flimsier plot points and misused music seek to undermine the hints of brilliance and relegate this tale to something below even a charming trifle.
For 16-year-old Umi, life is as pleasant as it is filled with remorse and longing. In the absence of her mother, she helps to run a beautiful boarding house propped up on a hill overlooking the nearby harbour and attends the local high school with her sister Sora. The presence of the lodgers, her grandmother and sisters and duties she holds down keeps her content, but the loss of her father – a ship captain – in the Korean War remains as a hole in her heart. It’s the crossing paths with a passionate but reckless high school senior named Shun, who looks to save their dilapidated clubhouse, that sends her on a coming of age journey – one that may have deeper ties to her past than she ever would have thought.
In many ways the two main storylines of From Up on Poppy Hill are at odds with one another. The far more potent of these remains that of Umi trying to reconcile with the loss of her father, her ritual of raising his signal flags every morning, and subsequently the mystery that unravels with Shun. It’s all handled with delicate hands but ones unafraid to explore the harsher truths of the situation. The burgeoning connection and romance between Umi and Shun is natural and sweet though the final catharsis is both rushed and stunted – a slip that can be attributed to the second main narrative: the club house reconstruction.
With the upcoming arrival of the 1964 Summer Olympics in Japan, the school’s rundown clubhouse called the Latin Quarter is set to get the axe to make way for a shiny new building. The resident attendees – everything from philosophy club to the school’s newspaper – lead by Shun are far from willing to let their beloved sanctuary go. Inspired by Umi, they set out to revamp the facility. It’s all fine enough but nothing we haven’t seen before in countless children’s films, and when taking time away from the more dramatically potent themes, it’s even less forgivable. It’s not surprising that the acclaimed magna series on which this film is based did not focus on such things.
From Up on Poppy Hill comes from Goro Miyazaki (son of the great Hayao) who previously stepped into the shadow of his father with the messy Tales from Earthsea in 2010. It would certainly appear he is improving both from a storytelling and visual standpoint though the spark and lasting impact of Hayao’s masterpieces are all but missing.
It’s a bit of a shame considering the elements that were available for use, but the limp filler rises to the surface. There are numerous – some extended – scenes of Umi preparing meals, shopping for meals, having to rush home early to cook meals, etc. The presentation of the fact that Umi is the head of the house is perfectly acceptable but not in such excess. Had that time been used to explore the history of her family and the tragedy that befell them, “Poppy Hill” could have really been something.
Also baffling and ultimately distracting – egregiously so – are the music choices. These range anywhere from the typical score one would expect in a Ghibli effort to Parisian-inspired rifts right out of a Woody Allen movie to Rat Pack to spoken word songs. The jumps between genres are jarring and frankly none of them appropriately compliment the period setting. It would be interesting to see if anything has changed for the English-dubbed version in that regard.
When all is said and done there will certainly be those who admire From Up on Poppy Hill, but I would have to question anyone who could view it for anything more than the cinematic equivalent of a trinket. For its exploration of mortality and growing up I applaud Miyazaki and his team, as do I the animators for their visually sumptuous work. But the forgetful nature of the rest is too suffocating to allow any kind of wonder or warmth to remain when the credits roll.
Soft, warm animation and resonant reflections on death, moving on and growing up can't fully overcome slighter plot points and erratic music choices.