From Up on Poppy Hill Relays the Struggle for Identity in Post-war Japan

From Up on Poppy Hill Japanese Poster

From Up on Poppy Hill Japanese Poster

TitleFrom Up on Poppy Hill
Genre(s)Animation, Drama, Family
Director(s)Goro Miyazaki
Release Year2013

Studio Ghibli is the best animated company out there right now, consistently providing the best in hand-drawn animated films since Castle in the Sky. However, it has become apparent that Hayao Miyazaki is where all the talent resides in the film studio, not to say that other directors have not had success, but that Miyazaki seems to be where all the more imaginative films stem from. His films fall less on the realistic side and more into the surreal and fantastical. Then you have the other films in the Ghibli canon like From Up on Poppy Hill, which places Hayao’s son Goro Miyazaki in the director’s chair with a script co-written by his father and Keiko Niwa (who co-wrote Goro’s debut Tales From Earthsea with him). This film grounds itself in the past, as a 1963 Japan prepares itself to host the Olympics and a backdrop of post-war change lingers throughout the nation.

The plot is extremely simple, with Umi Matsuzaki (Masami Nagasawa) slowly falling in love with Shun Kazama (Junichi Okada), as they work with the rest of their school to fix the school’s clubhouse and save it from being demolished in preparation for the Olympics that are coming to Tokyo. The plot is not what matters here though, but the cultural significance of the questions it raises. The school is being demolished because it represents the past, something which the government wants to transition from, but the students feel there is room for the past in this changing world. The clubhouse represents Japan’s own past, and the demolition of it would wipe years of memories away, and represent the degradation of Japan’s history and culture. Meanwhile, as the struggle to retain elements of the past continues, Kazama is at odds with himself as he tries to find out the identity of his real father. This creates an internal conflict as Kazama wonders who he is. Subsequently, the film uses Shun as a representation of Japan’s hunt for its own identity.

Oh and there's lots of boats, and references to ships. It is a port after all.

Oh and there’s lots of boats, and references to ships. It is a port after all.

Illustrated wonderfully, as always, From Up on Poppy Hill feels like it has significant substance behind it, despite its very basic narrative. It is when this narrative starts revealing a few twists that it unveils the kind of stuff that you would not expect out of a Ghibli film. The relationship between Umi and Shun becomes increasingly more complicated, resulting in a slight detachment from their plight, and bursting with cheap melodrama. But on the surface, Miyazaki delivers a painstakingly accurate portrait of feelings in Japan during the 1960’s, utilizing a beautiful watercolor background against traditional hand-drawn animated characters, to illustrate this fermenting change in the way things are.

Unlike most Ghibli films however, this movie has a heavier reliance on songs, with some of the lyrics for a few of them written by Goro and Hayao, each one evoking a nostalgic feeling that blends well with the film. Everything about From Up on Poppy Hill feels like a snapshot of the time, with feelings and moments represented in a way that feels authentic. Getting emotionally attached to the world created here isn’t difficult, but staying attached to the characters once their twists are revealed might be a little more difficult. The story is fairly predictable, but it will be hard not to get lost in the world, as is par for the course with most Ghibli productions.

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