For the next few posts I am going to look at a triumvirate of films from Studio Ghibli, although I am going to steer clear of those well known classics (though one day I will get around to “Spirited Away” and “My Neighbour Totoro”. I will start with the latest release from the studio, that has swept all the usual awards, but is it because it is worthwhile, or is it because of the extra effort that went into it after all the natural disaster issues in Japan during it’s creation? It is also notable for being Goro Miyazaki’s second film (he is the son of the great Hayao), after is first effort “Tales of Earthsea” was an unqualified disaster. Better luck second time around?
“From Up On Poppy Hill” is the story of near orphan Umi – her Mother is a famous Professor always working abroad, and her father passed away whilst at sea during the Korean War. She helps look after not only her Grandmother and two siblings, but also the boarding house which her family runs. It is 1963, and there is pressure at her school to demolish the old clubhouse, and replace it with something shiny and new to celebrate the ushering in of a new era in Japan, which brings her into contact with the dashing Shun. As they work together to save the clubhouse, the pair become closer, but before love can fully blossom, it becomes apparent that there may be something about both their upbringing that could forever stop them being together.
I really really really wanted to like this film. It is a beautifully drawn and constructed as any Studio Ghibli film, so we have to accept that as a given. The attention to detail is exceptional, and the design of the creaky clubhouse is a marvel. It also has one of the best soundtracks of a Ghibli film for me – an unusual mix of Jazz and Blues that have the foot tapping constantly, and the opening song is cuter than a kitten. There are also two broad types of Ghibli film – that which invokes the fantastical, to show the end of childhood; and then those which are more grounded in the adult world, that are more interested in the workings of memory and change and growth. This is very much in the second camp.
Thematically it is really good. This is a Japan that is just about ready to re-enter the world at large. It is 20 years since World War Two, and Japan is gearing up to put on the 1964 Olympics, and with that, to become a fully fledged member of the world again. You see the slow ramping up of business and industry in the background. The clubhouse itself is a huge metaphor for Japan in this sense – it is old fashioned, but the young people see that it is foolish to totally demolish the relics of Japan’s past, that it is maybe important to clean it up, give it a fresh lick of paint – but that history is something to be treasured and honoured. You can take this even further when the girls at the school are suddenly allowed to be part of the campaign to keep the clubhouse, mirroring again the change of gender roles that are taking place at this time. It isn’t quite the student riots of 1968, but you can see the changing ground.
Sadly, this is all background work, and few of the characters involved in the mini-revolution are well fleshed out at all, instead being stereotypes and comic relief at best. The story that the film wants to tell is about Shun and Umi, and their potential “pure love”, and the events of the past which may forever be a barrier against them. The real problem is that the film doesn’t really give us much time to believe in the romance, before throwing the spanner in the works. Moreover, whist the issue is resolved before it gets potentially icky, the resolution is put together in such a complicated and unnecessary way, that is gives the film a terribly clumsy and unsatisfactory ending. Shun or Umi’s parent’s could have easily explained everything away, without having to introduce a third party.
I wonder if the source Manga had a lot more going on as well. There are a number of Boarders at Umi’s house, that look like they could have interesting stories of their own, but they seem to exist only to either drive the love plot forward a little. I never really learnt about them, who they were, and as they were all females, what their stories were. I am certain they could be used to expand upon some of those earlier themes I spoke about.
I feel I have been harsh on the film. I did enjoy it a lot, but for once I was more into the mood and background detail and ideas of the film. The main love story left me somewhat cold, and I found Umi to be a somewhat generic Ghibli heroine. She is strong and clever and holds her family together, but she has nothing unique about her. Shun is even worse – after an impressive introduction, he becomes a somewhat anodyne character, defined merely by who is father may or not be. At best it is a middling Ghibli entry, far from horrible, but not one that could charm the neophyte. Recommended with reservations.