The younger Miyazaki made his debut with Tales from Earthsea back in 2006, which saw him take on the fantasy animated genre so wonderfully mastered by his father. From Up On Poppy Hill is a marked change of direction, with a story very much grounded not just in reality, but also steeped in history.
Umi Matsuzaki (Masami Nagasawa) is a young high school student living at a boarding house in Yokohama, Japan, set up on a hill overlooking the harbour. Every day, whilst taking care of her grandmother, she raises a set of signal flags in honour of her father, killed at sea during the Korean War.
When she reads a poem in the school newspaper about a girl who daily raises flags, she realises it must be about her. Its author, Shun Kazama (Junichi Okada), is a member of the school’s newspaper club, which is lobbying to save the school’s ageing clubhouse from being demolished. Umi and Shun work to rally the students around them, while along the way the two discover a secret from their pasts that has a bearing on their future.
Ghibli’s output has become well known to be frequently based in fantasy worlds, and it is interesting to see here the historical direction taken instead in Miyazaki’s From Up On Poppy Hill, feeling grounded among these very human characters in a Japan still recovering from World War II, balancing a relationship with the past and an eye on the future. The young love that blossoms between Umi and Shun will be a nostalgic one for adult audiences, and the strength and determination that these youngsters and their cohorts possess is heart-warming, like only youth can be.
The film’s weak point arguably lies with its final act, which feels slightly rushed in the final scenes. The tension builds nicely towards a dramatic conclusion in the last quarter of an hour, yet that conclusion takes just a few minutes to unfold, and the emotional pay-off is a little weakened as a result. Nonetheless, it is a joy to live amongst these wonderful characters, as this film is evidently a labour of love, and its strengths far outweigh and outnumber the slightly rushed finale.
Though there are many who remarked upon the difficulties Gor? Miyazaki faces in achieving the same kind of greatness his father has managed, he is certainly making a worthy attempt at it. That said, and despite its box office success, Tales from Earthsea was received with mixed reviews by its critics- and though the comparison between the two Miyazakis persists, however justified, From Up On Poppy Hill has deservedly fared much better – enhanced by the impressive US voice cast included for the dubbed release.
It is a charming story of young love, determination, and inspiration, set during a time in which the consequences of the War were still playing out. The animation is nothing short of beautiful, with a simple bike ride down a hill so brilliantly illustrated, and we would expect nothing less from one of the greatest animation houses in the world. Studio Ghibli are of course essentially the only animation house known beyond America’s borders, and their reputation is very much a well-earned one.
From Up On Poppy Hill is another instant classic from a family-favourite studio, and whilst it may not reach the highs and depths of some of the studio’s other works, it is an unmissable film in its own right, and having already won the top animation prize in Japan, this is definitely worthy of BAFTA and Oscar recognition.