I went into this film, despite my optimism in my Tales From Earthsea review that Gorō Miyazaki still had more to offer, with a level of trepidation. At the time I sat down to watch the film Gorō’s latest Ghibli effort, Earwig and the Witch, just received a North American release and was met with a critical panning across the board, which only left me more hesitant to sit down and watch From Up on Poppy Hill….. But I’m really glad I did as my fears could not have been more wrong. While I’ve yet to see Earwig and the Witch (don’t worry I’ll get around to covering it on here in no time), I feel pretty confident in saying that currently this is Gorō’s best film at this point in his career.
At its core From Up on Poppy Hill is a film about the conflict between the past and the future, the most obvious way in which this conflict is explored is through the School’s clubhouse that the agency of the film revolves around. In the narrative the clubhouse, named the Quartier Latin or Latin Quarter, is set to be demolished and rebuilt, despite protests from the collective student body. Cue Umi Matsuzaki, the heroine of the film, she lives in a boarding-house with her sister’s, grandmother and other residents, but missing from her life is her mother, who is currently studying abroad in the USA, and her father, who died in the Korean War. When the film starts Umi is trapped in a cycle of tradition, she takes on her mother’s role of preparing breakfast and lunch for the residents of the boarding house and is clearly shown to be taking on the bulk of the housework despite only being 16. Now while Umi isn’t shown to hate this life or even have a desire to escape, there is a sense that I felt that this isn’t Umi’s life, it’s a life she has been thrust into due to the lack of parental figures in her life and she has to become a surrogate for that older generation for her younger sisters and brothers. But one day her life is disrupted after a poem is published about her in the school newspaper by Shun Kazama, a fellow classmate who one day jumps off of the roof of the Latin Quarter in order to raise awareness about the collective protest against the clubhouses demolition. After accompanying her sister to get Shun’s autograph, Umi becomes involved in both the school’s newspaper but also the efforts to restore and protect the school’s clubhouse.
The central image of the clubhouse is an important one to the themes of the film, it represents the intersection between the past and the present, carrying the legacy and heritage of all clubs and club-members that walked it’s floors before while also providing a safe space to the current club members. This is even demonstrated by a dinner that takes place at the boarding house where Shun and his best friend Shirō Mizunuma, along with their brothers, discuss their shared outrage at the idea of the clubhouse being torn down, literally demonstrating the impact it has had on a number of generations. But the clubhouse also represents the present and future, in my opinion, through the cleaning and renovation that the students undertake of the clubhouse. It is this sequence of literally preserving history that generates the spark of romance between the two lead characters, both of whom never knew or barely knew their own fathers. This detail is important narratively, but it also demonstrates the importance of preserving the Latin Quarter clubhouse thematically in this film as without a direct family history for these characters to preserve, the clubhouse as a cultural monument not just of the protagonist’s time at school, but also their fathers. When you extend this idea to the later events of the film, and the efforts that the schoolchildren go to to preserve the Latin Quarter, it’s definitely no coincidence that the school board Chairman that Umi needs to meet is working in Tokyo on the 1964 Summer Olympics. The timeframe in which the film is set reflects a changing guard of Japan, a generation of men lost to war are unable to preserve their own legacy, leaving it to their children to not only preserve their father’s legacy but to enhance it, to clean it up so it doesn’t remain as an eyesore of a time gone past, but as a fitting tribute to how the older generations informed and shaped the younger generation.
If it wasn’t already clear I think From Up on Poppy Hill is a really beautiful film, it’s got some weirdness I wouldn’t usually expect from a Studio Ghibli film, like a subplot where the two lead characters think they might actually be related and thus have to hide their feelings for each other. While it’s eventually revealed, to no-one’s surprise, that they aren’t related, the flirting with the taboo of incest felt very bizarre, although not entirely mishandled, for a Ghibli film. But what can be seen in this film is Gorō taking on board the criticisms of Tales From Earthsea, especially about trying to imitate his father’s style, and he develops his own directorial voice. Sure this film does have Hayao’s influence, after all he wrote the film, but ignoring the art style, the tone of From Up on Poppy Hill is significantly distinct from Hayao’s work. It really is a beautiful film, and the Ghibli charm, specifically the Miyazaki art-style, layered over a very human story, that feels closer to Takahata’s work narratively than Hayao’s, demonstrates that Gorō is not just a competent director but one with real chops. If Tales from Earthsea was Gorō’s misstep, then From Up on Poppy Hill is his proving ground, and in my opinion, he proved that he does deserve these opportunities and that he can create an incredible film.