From Up on Poppy Hill is the first film from the team of Miyazaki father and son, Hayao and Goro, and while it has some of the elements I’ve come to expect from Miyazaki animated films, this movie is unexpected sweeter and gentler, with no hints of magic.
Instead, the magic comes from a nostalgic tale of a girl growing up and coming to terms with the death of her father, as the community around her seeks to move into the future and wavers between forgetting the past and honoring it. Hayao Miyazaki and Keiko Niwa wrote the script, and it’s the second feature film directed by Goro Miyazaki.
Umi, the teenage girl at the center of the story, is juggling many roles, as a student, as a caretaker for her younger siblings, and as the help for the household borders. The story begins with a scene that I’ve come to associated with Miyazaki films: a cooking sequence that made me wish Umi was fixing me breakfast.
Shun, the teenage boy who becomes the object of Umi’s affection, notices Umi’s habit of putting up signal flags each day in memory of her father, a seaman. He has his own crusade, which is to save the Quartier Latin, the school clubhouse. In another classic Miyazaki-style scene, everyone works together to clean up the Quartier Latin.
The movie is very much a slice of life story set in 1963 in an fictionalized area of Japan that is still clearly recovering from the difficulties of past wars, including World War II and Korea. I couldn’t help seeing the renovation of the clubhouse as a symbolic renovation of Japan’s past, an attempt to respect what happened while looking to the future at the same time. And while the romance is sweet, there is a dark secret at the heart of the bond between Umi and Shun which is, fortunately, resolved positively. This could be another metaphor for the past being tragic and sad but perhaps not dark and twisted as was first thought.
For adults, I’d recommend this movie, especially if you’re already a fan of Studio Ghibli. The story is simple but the characters that inhabit it are not and the tale has stayed with me since I watched. I watched with my 14-year-old son and he was enthralled but for younger children, the slower pace and lack of magic might cause a little bit of boredom.