1963, Yokohama, Japan. Umi (Sarah Bolger, voice) is holding together her family while her mother is away in the United States. Every morning, before making breakfast for all her lodgers, she raises flags for her father, a sailor who died during the Korean War. When a boy at her school starts replying to her flags, she becomes swept up in adolescent romance. Together with her beau, school hero Shun (Anton Yelchin, voice), she sets out to save the school’s fantastical clubhouse from demolition.
You could liken Studio Ghibli to Pixar: every release they make is eagerly anticipated by a huge audience and will always be compared to its predecessors. With a back catalogue that includes Princes Mononoke and Spirited Away, From Up On Poppy Hill is already setting off with a slight handicap being set in real world Japan rather than a mystical universe. There is much less scope to conjure the all-consuming fantasy Studio Ghibli weaves so expertly.
Yet we are still sucked into the world so beautifully imagined by the two Miyazaki generations – animation Hayao wrote the screenplay with son Goro direct – the story is entrancing, the hand-drawn scenery sublime. From Up On Poppy Hill still makes everything feel magical. Most of this spellbinding comes courtesy of the school clubhouse: each different club, along with its pupils’ personalities, activities and interactions, fills you with a childish excitement and desperate longing to be there.
The autonomous children’s world, with its own politics and society, allows the narrative to explore issues faced everywhere in a more playful fashion. Through the subtext, grown-up and children viewers alike are introduced to an alternative way of approaching the issue of ‘change vs tradition’.
The film’s maturity spreads to the more personal aspects too. The characters are layered, realistic in their shortcomings, admirable in their strengths. You feel free to lose yourself in their emotion. The romance is endearing and innocent, expertly leading the audience on. Larger than life supplementary characters enrich each moment, keeping you interested despite occasional unavoidable romance clichés.
Paced superbly, Goro Miyazaki’s direction utilises suggestion and implication rather than overt, brash dialogue. You are encouraged to empathise with a character as they reflect on events, imagining how you’d feel in the same situation. If only more directors would realise just how potent this can be in allowing you to sympathise with characters: you really do feel for Umi as events beyond her control start to affect her relationship with Shun; and you understand Shun’s motives completely.
Technically, this film is superb. The animation takes some getting used to, not unlike starting a new book, but Japanese artists truly appreciate the value of detail and this is proven in the beautiful mise-en-scene in every background. What truly makes this film stand out from most animations, and indeed many motion pictures, is the foley: Kôji Kasamatsu has created a masterpiece of incidental sound, the main reason this world is so immersive.
Where the film does fall short is the discomfort that comes with a rather mature theme. The makers were very brave to broach the subject, though, while it is handled sensitively, the way it is later glossed over leaves a bitter aftertaste. Aside from this, a little more exploration of the clubhouse and its inhabitants would have made it much more fascinating and perhaps avoided the slightly sagging mid-section.
Overall Verdict: While slightly underwhelming in comparison to Studio Ghibli’s fantasy creations, this is everything you could wish for in a film. It is beautiful and enchanting. From Up On Poppy Hill is highly recommended family viewing.
Reviewer: Adrian Naik