From up on Poppy Hill (Celebrate Studio Ghibli)
Masami Nagasawa, Junichi Okada, Keiko Takeshita
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…this is the sort of film that demonstrates just now versatile animation can be…
In 2006 Hayao Miyazaki’s son Goro made his directorial debut with the relatively unpopular Tales from Earthsea. When the younger Miyazaki returned five years later with his sophomore effort From up on Poppy Hill, more than a few Studio Ghibli fans appeared rather apprehensive about his chances. Thankfully their fears were unfounded. This grounded, sweet drama about a teenage girl in 1960s Yokohama was not only vastly superior, it sat quite comfortably among earlier Studio Ghibli productions such as Only Yesterday (1991) and Whisper of the Heart (1995). It was, and remains, a wonderfully charming character piece.
The film follows Umi Matsuzaki (voiced by Masami Nagasawa), a 16 year-old high schooler living in Yokohama. In her mother’s absence she manages and cooks for the family boarding house in between her academic studies. Umi connects with the editor of the school’s student newsletter, Shun Kazuma (Junichi Okada), and they grow closer while working to save the school’s decrepit student clubhouse from demolition.
It is a beautifully observed and animated film, with a genuine richness of emotion and character. Why Goro Miyazaki’s second film succeeds where his first faltered is likely down to Poppy Hill’s amiable, gentle screenplay. Unlike Earthsea it was co-written by his father, and the elder Miyazaki’s fingerprints are all over it. There is a classic Studio Ghibli warmth that fills this film but which felt absent from Earthsea.
There is an argument to be made that, as it features no fantastical or visually outlandish content, Poppy Hill could have been shot just as easily in live-action, and that as an animation it is a little redundant. This argument ignores the immense subtlety and more importantly the visual simplicity that the film gets as a result of being animated. While it could have been made in live-action, it would not have been half as engaging or emotionally effective. In a slightly perverse sense, this is the sort of film that demonstrates just now versatile animation can be: it isn’t simply about showcasing visuals that are impossible to achieve in reality, it’s about giving small intimate moments a level of abstraction as well.
The background scenery is particularly beautiful, with judicious use of CGI enhancing rather than supplanting the hand-drawn animation. Key animation is, broadly speaking, very good, however there are a few uncharacteristic moments where the quality wavers – generally when a bunch of characters are singing together. The film did have a slightly fraught production period, with the animation process coinciding with the 2011 tsunami, and the studio did rush to complete work to meet the original release date. In the end it is a minor problem. The film’s soundtrack is excellent, with the prominent use of Kyu Sakamoto’s “I Shall Walk Looking Up” (better known in the West as “Sukiyaki”) adding a nice element of period and thematic detail.
The huge jump in quality from Earthsea to Poppy Hill suggests a solid future for Goro Miyazaki’s career. Since completing this second film he has directed an entire anime television series, Ronja the Robber’s Daughter. I really hope he returns to direct a third feature soon; he has so much demonstrated potential.