The likes of Spirited Away, My Neighbour Totoro and Princess Mononoke may steal the Studio Ghibli limelight, but those curious enough to dig deeper into the Japanese animation company’s canon will find a small, perfectly formed run of low-key, real-world tales that, even without the fantastical flourishes and magical worlds, still bear the studio’s distinctive brand of wonder. The second film from director Goro Miyazaki (Tales Of Earthsea), From Up On Poppy Hill sits right alongside Only Yesterday (1991), Whisper Of The Heart (1995) and the TV movie Ocean Waves (1993) because it dispenses with fantasy in favour of teen melodrama, telling the story of Umi, a schoolgirl in early 60s Yokohama, who searches for the mysterious boy who penned a poem about her in the school newspaper.
Goro Miyazaki does seem more comfortable inhabiting the delicate everyday lives of schoolkids than, say, drafting grand skirmishes between ginormous dragons, but if 2006’s Tales From Earthsea lacked Hayao Miyazaki’s deft navigation of epic adventure and humanist themes, Poppy Hill, co-adapted by Hayao from Tetsuro Sayama and Chizuru Takahashi’s source manga, is a little lacking in that inimitable Ghibli touch, that familiar tendency to find as much magic in the real world as in the realm of fantasy. Perhaps the culprit is a slightly-too-convoluted plot, which across a number of twists and turns brings in staple complications such as absent fathers, baby-swapping and even a little hint of incest - overwhelming the film’s more twee tendencies with soap opera scandal.
One welcome exception is the key location for the film’s subplot, the run-down clubhouse that the boys at Umi’s school have colonised. Essentially a shanty-town of school societies, the raucous bustle of this chaotic little community acts as a real-world companion to the commotion of the bath-house in Spirited Away. There’s real excitement here, especially once Umi and a fleet of female students descend on the building to marshal the young men into cleaning it up, but Miyazaki takes time to reflect on the beauty of the space, too, lingering on the way sunlight cuts through dusty stained glass.
The clean-up operation also serves as the film’s central metaphor. After all, this is 1963, and the clubhouse closure comes as part of a wave of modernisation as Japan prepared for the 1964 Summer Olympics. ‘How can we educate the young without protecting our culture?’ the film asks, but From Up On Poppy Hill takes the Hayao Miyazaki’s recurrent theme of pastoral nostalgia and positions it awkwardly in a period where Japan was not only shaking off its recent past, but also redefining its cultural identity. In 1960s cinema, a new wave of Japanese filmmakers questioned nostalgia and lampooned their elders, but Poppy Hill reimagines this turbulent, exciting generational conflict as featherlight whimsy tinged with melancholy: here, it’s the adults who need to be convinced that the shabby remnants of the past are worth saving.
However, even though the film deploys Ozu-like shots of Coca Cola bottles encroaching on everyday Japanese life, Poppy Hill is clearly unconcerned with confronting history. Despite its specific historical context - something Hayao Miyazaki chose not to make as explicit in his other post-war film, My Neighbour Totoro - this is at heart an endearing character drama set against a beautiful backdrop, in which a bike ride into town at sunset is the romantic ideal. A film of simple pleasures, set at a simpler time.
In a nutshell: A throwback to early 90s Ghibli in its gentle, nostalgic whimsy, From Up On Poppy Hill finds Goro Miyazaki sitting much more comfortably in the director’s chair, but fans of the studio’s fantasy epics may find this fanciful delight to be lacking the familiar magic.
By Michael Leader