A long time ago, in 2006, Goro Miyazaki (the son of the legendary Hayao Miyazaki) introduced his first ever Studio Ghibli film, Tales from Earthsea and I was not impressed at all. It's not bad, but this is Studio Ghibli at its lowest point in its 40-year history. It is, by far, the worst Studio Ghibli movie I have ever seen. Even the author of the original book was underwhelmed by the fact that her most successful book was turned into a Studio Ghibli film. Goro’s body of work has been hounded by the lofty expectations heaped upon his family name long before even the release of his critically maligned debut. Seriously, you could do better than Tales From Earthsea. Oh wait. You did! In 2011, Goro releases his second film From Up On Poppy Hill, an SG coming-of-age film with no fantasy, no action chase scenes, none of which you'll see in the average Studio Ghibli film, instead it's a sweet and gentle film with beautiful animation, an awesome soundtrack, a wonderful English cast and an amazing story to go with it and is much better than Tales From Earthsea.
The movie takes place in Yokohama in 1963, as Japan begins to reemerge as a world power after World War ll. Umi Matsuzaki, a second-year high school girl who lives and works in a tenant home with her grandmother and her 2 younger siblings. Her father was a Japanese sailor who died at sea during the Korean War and her mother is studying in the United States. Every morning, even before she goes to school, she raises signal flags out on the garden which overlooks the ocean as a way to remember her lost father, before embarking on a daily routine, rigidly structured around school and the chores she must perform at her home.
One day she runs into a reckless, dashing senior named Shun, and soon allows her life to open up to the optimism and energy of the teen idealists who occupy The Latin Quarter, a dilapidated school clubhouse where the more intellectually-disposed male students have set up various headquarters for their extracurricular activities. Umi helps out Shun with his newspaper printing, and ends up fighting alongside him and the occupants of the clubhouse to save their beloved Latin Quarter against the forces of change which holds sway in Japan. Meanwhile, unforeseen revelations about their families' past force Umi and Shun, who are increasingly drawn to each other, to reconsider their feelings.
I marvel at how simple this movie is. It's a romance, but there's no villain, there's no kissing, there's no skin shown. Yet I was at the edge of my seat over whether the hero and the heroine would get together. Just everyday life in a seaside town, a boarding house and a school. The actors and actresses in typical Hollywood rom-coms are the cartoons, not these animated people I've grown to care about in the span of an hour and a half. This movie will give you a very fresh breeze of happiness and leave you with joys. The main characters and their interactions were portrayed very real, though a little bit matured. That may be because they lived in a time not so long after the war. I truly felt happy for the little couple by the end of the movie. It makes me miss my high school time a little bit. Japanese anime knows how to evoke that nostalgic feeling effortlessly.
Written by Hayao Miyazaki and Keiko Niwa, the story is realistic and historic in theme. Gone are the cutesy, magical monsters and characters, as well as the environmental commentaries Studio Ghibli is best known for. Instead, From Up On Poppy Hill deals with the 'Rise of Post-War Japan' and the incoming Tokyo Olympics. It genuinely replaces fantasy with realism. The film certainly creates a fitting atmosphere. Shots of Japan's growing exporting and importing industries, office businesses and the hustle and bustle of Tokyo, clearly indicate the modern transformation of the country. We also experience the tragic nature of the Korean War and the impact on families and friends. The story also focuses on the widening gap/ split between traditional Japanese culture and the modern, business age. It was during this 'miracle' period where Japan looked forward, rather than back, and the contest between the 'school' and the 'students' dramatize this theme. The contrast between the old buildings and industries of Yokohama, and the trains, cars of Tokyo symbolize the changing ideologies and philosophies of the nation if Japan.
While it may sound very mature when compared to previous Studio Ghibli's films, it still deals with adolescents in a adult world, like Nausicaa and Castle In The Sky. However whilst magical characters and mysticism connect with the imaginations of children, From Up On Poppy Hill uses its high-school environment and the sincere, pure nature of childhood relations to connect with younger audiences. It's the characters that help with the portrayal of the story and the bring these environments and themes to the screen. And they are fantastic. While not as memorable when compared to the likes of Chihiro (Spirited Away) and My Neighbor Totoro, they still possess enough personality and charm for the audience to care for them. We are introduced to various different students, all whom have different personalities.
However the film focuses on the main characters of Umi and Shun and therefore unfortunately leads to other characters not being fully explored or developed to the same extent. Umi is definitely my favorite character. She is beautifully portrayed and developed and well-voiced by Sarah Bolger. Her calm, mature exterior hides her damaged background. We experience the loss of her father, and the growing pressure and responsibility she has gained with her mother studying abroad. Meanwhile, the strong-willed, charming personality of Shun, voiced by Anton Yelchin, also obscures an uncertain background that becomes clearer with the relationship with Umi. Gorō and the writers have carefully constructed the characters and story, achieving a steady pace that allows for a deeper exploration into From Up On Poppy Hill's word.
I actually thought that the English Dub version was better than the original and the cast is really good, featuring Jamie Lee Curtis, Aubrey Plaza, Gillian Anderson (who was the voice of Moro in Princess Mononoke, Alex Wolff, Emily Osment, Isabelle Fuhrman, Bruce Dern, Beau Bridges, Ron Howard and much more. The music is also a strong point for this movie that makes it very enjoyable to watch, as it is composed by Takebe Satoshi. It sounds very jazzy and it fits the atmosphere perfectly. Aoi Teshima, who previously sings Song of Therru in Tales from Earthsea, once again lends her clear, beautiful voice to sing the main theme song of this movie, "Sayonara no Natsu -From Up On Poppy Hill-" (which is the 2011 version of the same title -without Kokurikozaka Kara words- sung by Ryoko Moriyama in 1976). The famous "Ue wo Muite Arukou" or more commonly known as "Sukiyaki" outside of Japan which is sung by the late Kyu Sakamoto also presented in this movie as the insert song and played twice in the movie.
Finally, in conclusion, From Up On Poppy is a wonderful piece of animation that shows Goro Miyazaki's growing talent. Not only is it a beautiful work of art and animation, but it is a triumph in story-telling and character development. It's not as memorable as the likes of Spirited Away and My Neighbor Totoro but it moves away from the fantasy theme that is usually seen in almost every Studio Ghibli film and moves into the theme of realism. It is very well constructed and directed and with the inevitable fact that Hayao Miyazaki, Toshio Suzuki and Isao Takahata won't be here anymore, it is very reassuring that they can look to the next generation of young artists and directors who continue to prove themselves that they are the next generation of Studio Ghibli.