Monday, September 14, 2015

From Up on Poppy Hill

Goro Miyazaki, son of Studio Ghibli founder Hayao, made his directorial debut in 2006 with ‘Tales from Earthsea’, an overly ambitious attempt to weave elements from the first four books of Ursula K. LeGuin’s ‘Earthsea’ saga into a single epic narrative. The result was intermittently awesome visually but a total clusterfuck as an exercise in storytelling. The world-building was confused and the characters ciphers. 

Mercifully, his second outing avoids all those mistakes. ‘From Up on Poppy Hill’ (2011) jettisons complex plotting in favour of character development – although, for its first half, this almost threatens to work to the film’s detriment. For a good 40 minutes, all that happens is some students at an academy protest the imminent closure and demolition of their clubhouse. Oh, and a very low-key romance develops between Umi (voiced by Masami Nagasawa) and Shun (Junichi Okada).

Then Miyazaki throws in an impediment to their nascent relationship so hefty that even Shun has the good grace to deem it as “something out a cheap melodrama”. I’ll leave this review spoiler-free; suffice it to say, it’s a plot device that’s been well-worked throughout the ages and is more in-keeping with histrionic psychological dramas than a U-rated nostalgic anime. Its resolution is no less creaky. None of which bodes well …


It’s just so utterly bloody gorgeous to look at. Even when nothing’s happening, as in the long opening sequence in which the minutiae of Umi’s day are observed in such detail you’d think Miyazaki was using a microscope instead of a set of storyboards, the evocation of a time and a place are effect with such visual beauty, in a such a glorious wash of colour, that it’s impossible not to be captivated.

Set in 1963 in a small harbour town, the film makes only one diversion from its self-contained and precisely defined locale for a sequence where Umi, Shun and their friend Shiro (Shunsuke Kazama) visit Tokyo. Miyazaki clearly relishes the juxtaposition, cramming his frames with imagery, energy and movement, bringing to life a metropolis gearing up for the 1964 Olympic Games. A similar sprightliness infuses the scenes of student life, particularly in wryly observed moment where two opposing factions snap from mutual animosity to well-oiled collusion in order to pull the wool over their tutors’ eyes.

The portrayal of Umi – her emotional vulnerability in sharp contrast to her can-do attitude and strong work ethic – suggests that Hayao Miyazaki’s career-long feminist sensibilities have been vouchsafed by his son. Tradition, responsibility and the innocence of childhood – also thematic staples of Hayao’s work – are also present here.

Various flashbacks to the war unravel the story that threatens to keep Umi and Shun apart, with a reference to the destruction of Nagasaki evoking Isao Takahata’s ‘Grave of the Fireflies’. The difference, of course, is that ‘Grave of the Fireflies’ didn’t offset its heart-wrenching account of the human cost of war with a rose-tinted, semi-comedic coming of age story.

And that’s the main flaw of ‘From Up on Poppy Hill’: its primary narrative is too insubstantial to carry the emotional weight of its subplot. I’m not sure, had the campaign to save the clubhouse been relegated to subplot material and the meddlings of fate in Umi and Shun’s past been the main focus, if the balance would have worked even then.

As it is, watching ‘From Up on Poppy Hill’ is to sit through a first half that simply requires you to appreciate some achingly beautiful images and then simultaneously wonder where the hell the big melodramatic humdinger came from and face-palm that anyone thought fit to include it in the first place. Without it, the film could have achieved the delightful, heartfelt simplicity and villain-free narrative of ‘My Neighbour Totoro’. Still, this is only Goro Miyazaki’s second feature, it’s a massive leap forward from his first, and (however the current production hiatus at Ghibli resolves) there is still time.

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