From Up on Poppy Hill: The Magic of Japan’s History

When Studio Ghibli’s From Up on Poppy Hill was first released to world cinemas in 2011, filmgoers and critics alike were cautiously optimistic for the renowned animation house’s latest offering.  While few would expect anything less from Ghibli’s state-of-the-art techniques of traditional hand-drawn animation, From Up on Poppy Hill would represent only the second feature-length movie from Goro Miyazaki—the son of Ghibli’s legendary chief animator and co-found, Hayao Miyazaki.  The younger director’s previous effort, 2006’s Tales from Earthsea, had been one of the studio’s few films to garner less-than-stellar reviews, and many doubted that Goro Miyazaki was, indeed, capable of carrying on the traditions of his father’s decades-long string of animated masterpieces.  The sophomore filmmaker, however, opted not to follow-up with another epic of fantasy and magic; rather, From Up on Poppy Hill, although lushly animated, was a period piece about 1960s Japan, during its fight for global identity and the cultural effects of a younger generation not born during in the years immediately following World War II.  A melodrama set against the historical tide of change in Japan, From Up on Poppy Hill marked Goro Miyazaki’s solid attempt to define his own artistic voice—while working alongside his father as screenwriter.  Nearly a decade later, YouTubers reconsider From Up on Poppy Hill, and discuss the younger Miyazaki’s reverence for tradition, and his philosophical appeal for the next generation of animation.  From the beginning, many commentators missed the whimsical approach of Hayao’s storytelling style, as YouTubers at What the Flick observed:

As with Hayao Miyazaki’ films, it’s beautiful to look at—but unlike a lot of Hayao Miyazaki’s work, there’s no, sort of, magical element, like pigs that fly planes or cat-buses, or houses that move spirits—none of that stuff … So, it’s more the perceived magic of humanity that’s between people, [things] that we describe as magic, but they’re not really ‘magic’ … It’s very sweet and very gentle and very old-fashioned, [but] I was never moved—and I missed the weirdness.

As Pixie’s Animation Vlog pointed out, it is nearly impossible not to compare the very diverse styles of Hayao Miyazaki with that of his son, Goro—leaving some viewers wishing that the younger filmmaker had broken away from his father’s signature style even further.  As the YouTuber commented:

Goro Miyazaki has only made one other film—Tales from Earthsea—and that was not very good, so I wasn’t super-optimistic about From Up on Poppy Hill … Unlike Tales from Earthsea, which was 100% Goro, Hayao Miyazaki helped out on this one by writing the screenplay—and it is an absolutely stunning film … I would have liked [Goro Miyazaki] to borrow less from dad, though, since it does look almost identical to a Hayao movie and it would have been nice to see him take more of a personal style, thought there is no denying he is good at his craft.

Other commentators, however, considered Goro Miyazaki’s realistic approach to life and drama, while maintaining the lush animation so associated with Studio Ghibli itself, intact.  As YouTuber Geek Archeology offered in their own reassessment:

One thing that I appreciate about Goro Miyazaki’s style is his use of small, silent action—even more so than his father. Characters furrow their brows or lean towards each other, or just sit waiting on a bench. It’s something of a ‘third-way’ between broad Disney animation and movement everywhere and the more static, stereotypical imagery of typical anime. Goro’s distinctive style also carries over into the film’s pacing. This story covers months in these characters’ live, and it unfolds at the steady, slow pace of real life.

That theme was echoed by the YouTubers at What the Flick, who cited Goro’s attention to detail—particularly in the film’s realistic depiction of human emotions and behavior—to be among the movie’s strongest suits, especially when coupled with the difficult subject matter of post-WWII Japan’s internal struggle for identity.  They added:

I felt like I really learned something in this movie about, sort of, for being the aggressors in World War II, and what is what like on a whole generation of Japanese people … And I think that the female lead is very much like a piece of the one from Spirited Away, and what the girl evolves into, which is that she appreciates the value of hard work and she’s very devoted to her family—and she’s a very rich character and not the, sort of, ditzy young girl that you get in a lot of movies.

Geek Archeology concurred with that observation, adding that the realism in the young characters’ behavior worked to add depth and dimension to the film, rather than detract from its lack of fantastical elements, as repeatedly mentioned by other viewers.  The YouTuber added:

The characters deserve mention because they’re not typical anime heroes; they’re not even typical [Studio Ghibli] protagonists: Umi is a reserved, serious girl who runs her mother’s boardinghouse while her mother is away. She lives a quiet life of routine and seems completely contend with this. Shun, her schoolmate, struggles to keep the school’s newspaper alive, and he has this drive to him that gives an intensity, a focus … Neither of these characters are looking outside of themselves or their own interests.

YouTuber Justin Watches Movies agreed with that observation, adding that while the crucial Studio Ghibli characteristic of detailing real-life moments provides the needed grounding to make audiences relate to the characters’ small, quieter motivations, the film was a jarring contrast to the studio’s previous works.  He commented:

Studio Ghibli is able to capture everyday slices of life, and From Up on Poppy Hill does that well, but it gets weird at the end. This is not one of Studio Ghibli’s best film, but it’s still charming, which common for a Studio Ghibli film. The script has a nice balance of humor and sorrow, but lacks depth and details like other Studio Ghibli movies…

Building off that theme, Geek Archeology added that that the historical backdrop chosen by Goro Miyazaki—an admitted fan of the film’s manga source material—offered important lessons to international audiences regarding Japan’s actual history—not just its cultural folktales, as is often present in previous Studio Ghibli films.  The YouTuber stated:

It adapts a manga set in 1963 in the bustling port city of Yokohama [and] combines a high school romance story with a look at student life in 1960s Japan. This was a time of great change in Japanese society, which the film hints at in several ways … As expected, the animation in Poppy Hill is smooth as butter, [and] almost perversely, the story seems to center around scenes with a lot of characters all moving around at once—big crowd scenes—and, moreover, these scenes are, sort of, moving around each other like fish in a stream…Very difficult to animate, and it looks perfect.

Likewise, YouTuber CinMoloko found the film’s grounded realism a refreshing change of pace for a Studio Ghibli movie, as director Goro Miyazaki utilized the romantic narrative of young love and its coming-of-age theme to represent the larger scope of Japan itself, particularly during its vast reconstruction of the 1960s.  The YouTuber offered:

[Shun] is a young, adventurous, enigmatic, enthusiastic young man who is trying to save his school’s clubhouse alongside his peers. It’s threatened to be demolished so that a new building can be built on it, but they are wanting to preserve the history of school, and kind of the culture of all that’s gone on beforehand. And this is where [the film] ties in with the political identity of Japan—forming a new identity but not forgetting who it was and what it did in the past.

When compared to the past two decades of universally praised animated epics, From Up on Poppy Hill seemed to attempt a shift in the tone of animated storytelling itself—at least according to YouTuber CinMoloko, who added that the movie’s visuals were stunning, but the dramatic aspects could have worked to polarized viewers expecting more traditional, whimsical fare.  He added:

It’s doing what a lot of the best Studio Ghibli films have done in the past—presenting this really lovely story on the surface but, underneath, it’s saying an awful lot more, and it’s done so in a very subtle way. It’s not done with, perhaps, as much finesse [as other Studio Ghibli films], and its execution isn’t, perhaps, as strong as it has been with this technique in other Studio Ghibli films—but it’s there, and it’s really enjoyable, and it definitely adds to the film and is a strength to the film.

CinMoloko summed up their final take on the film, noting that From Up on Poppy Hill offered some of the best animation of the genre—primarily due to its use of regular Studio Ghibli animators—but might not command the same repeat viewings as previous film’s in the company’s repertoire.  He concluded:

It is, for the most part, really sweet and charming and endearing, and it has a lot of the qualities you would expect from a Studio Ghibli film. It’s not quite there with the rest but, as I said, Goro has improved; he is more befitting into what you would expect, he’s doing something interesting by taking away some of the some of the fantasy and magical elements and doing something more grounded and real.

The YouTuber concluded:

This film … for the most part, does kind of exhume the charm and the sweetness that we’ve come to expect from Studio Ghibli films—but, there’s something missing, and it’s not just the sense of fantasy, it’s not just a sort of mythical element, which has populated so many other Ghibli films … It’s definitely a step-up from Tales of Earthsea [and] it’s more fitting into the canon of expectations from what you would want to see in a Studio Ghibli film … but it’s not quite there.

Those final sentiments echoed by the commentators at What the Flick, who added that while the film had all the brilliant visuals associated with Studio Ghibli’s full body of work—and Goro Miyazaki had come a long way since his first endeavor, Tales of Earthsea, with From Up on Poppy Hill, there still lacked the fantastical polish truly mastered by his father, Hayao.  They concluded:

I would not put this up there with Spirited Away or My Neighbor Totoro or Princess Mononoke, but I still that Miyazaki—in whatever job he’s taking—is probably the greatest living animator right now … Even his son is probably head and shoulders above a lot of other people out there working, especially in traditional animation.