From Up on Poppy Hill

Like father, like son?

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Suggesting all that is lost when people rush to replace the old ways with shiny new alternatives, Studio Ghibli’s gorgeously hand-drawn period romance From Up on Poppy Hill tells the story of how a young couple intervene in the demolition of a classic building on their school campus. Though relatively successful in its native Japan, this dramatic, somewhat grown-up entry represents a startling break from the fantastical tales for which the toon studio is known.

For director Goro Miyazaki, son of celebrated Studio Ghibli founder Hayao Miyazaki (who co-wrote the screenplay), Poppy Hill feels like an about-face after the disappointing debut of Tales From Earthsea. Where that film lost its way along a sprawling, ambitious sci-fi plot, this one feels small enough to cup in one’s hands. Adapted from a vintage manga series by Tetsuro Sayama and Chizuru Takahashi, the movie is a safe, sentimental choice as follow-ups go, trading on the fact that Japanese audiences would appreciate a nostalgic, lovingly rendered glimpse of themselves circa 1963, just as the country was reinventing itself for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

A wide-eyed example of the postwar generation, Umi lives with her grandmother on a scenic hill above Yokohama, where she keeps the memory of her war-hero father alive by raising flags for the passing ships each morning. Unknown to her, a boy from Umi’s school passes below daily and notices the signal, harboring a secret crush on his shy classmate.

But dating is more complicated than the two teens imagine, especially after the boy, Shun, recognizes a photograph of Umi’s father in her house—it matches the only relic he has of his own dad, suggesting the budding sweethearts may in fact be related. When the details of Shun’s family history come to light, they reveal the painful traces World War II left on ordinary citizens, a recurring motif in a tale whose central theme concerns the tension between Japan’s past and future.

At times, the film’s focus feels overly simplistic, as Umi rallies her classmates to save an old French-style mansion the students use as a clubhouse. But the efforts of the young characters’ Latin Quarter Anti-Demolition League represents something larger than the fate of the building itself, though the point may be lost on foreign audiences. Breathtaking in their own right, Poppy Hill’s beautiful vistas and bustling cityscapes reflect the effects of modernization on Japan itself, especially during the students’ trip into Tokyo to plead their case directly to the school board’s chairman.

Whereas Hayao Miyazaki looked upon the country’s boat- and pollution-clogged harbors with grim reproach in Ponyo, father and son alike see them as a symbol of national pride and progress in this context. And yet, Poppy Hill argues the need to maintain one’s ties to the past, even for a nation shamed, demoralized and eager to erase its recent history.

Certainly the young characters cannot move forward without untangling the specifics of their own family histories. The same principle applies to the country as a whole, and it seems somehow fitting that the increasingly antiquated medium of hard-drawn animation would serve to make the point here. The jury’s still out on whether Goro Miyazaki can sustain his father’s legacy as storyteller, though with its beautiful visuals and songs, Poppy Hill finds a deserving, if modest, place among its Studio Ghibli peers.

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