Feature Film: From Up On Poppy Hill

The latest from the legendary Japanese animation studio Studio Ghibli returns to the theme of nostalgia in Goro Miyazaki’s beautiful and tender story of a girl caught between her past and future


The world of Studio Ghibli possesses effortless and natural beauty that envelops the viewer and pulls them into fantastical tales, magical creatures and Japanese folk stories. The latest of the world-renowned Japanese animation house, From Up On Poppy Hill is a little different, relying on a more human story of innocent young love set in the midst of changing economic times. Directed by Goro Miyazaki, the eldest son of co-founder, Hayao Miyazaki continues the studio’s international reputation for creating heart-warming personal stories with a fantastic attention to detail. Goro Miyazaki has taken his time in taking the lead in Studio Ghibli and while From Up On Poppy Hill may not be quite as grand as past Studio Ghibli projects, it continues the legacy of producing genuine and elegant films.

From her home at the top of Poppy Hill, Umi Matsuzaki looks out across the busy Port of Yokohama. It is 1963 and the Japanese harbour town still reels from the effects of two wars. Umi’s father was a sea captain, killed in Korea, and her mother is a professor and away studying in America. Living in and dutifully working for a busy boarding house with family and friends, Umi is caught between mourning the past and a hope for a better future.

The country and capital city look ahead to hosting the 1964 Summer Olympics and all around businesses are getting the country ready before the eyes of the world are watching. Umi is untouched by the need for change until she becomes involved with a student body crusade to save the old clubhouse in the Latin Quarter. The school board seeks to modernise facilities and knockdown the old dilapidated clubhouse but the plight becomes a central theme when the student body rally behind the cause to save the building and perform dramatic stunts, host heated debates and cover the school newspaper each day with call to action headlines. It is surrounded by business and chaos at home and at school when Umi meets Shun, a fellow classmate active in saving the clubhouse. This unexpected friendship leaves Umi struggling to work out a balance between her family responsibilities, helping with the paper and saving the clubhouse with her friends.

Economics change with the time and moving on from past wars puts pressure on the seaside town. Young students typically expected to be enthusiastic about development, advancement and change adopt a lost cause in wanting to save the clubhouse, choosing to protect the old rather than welcoming the new. Starting out with a select group, eventually the entire student body get behind saving the Latin Quarter and help with Umi’s idea of cleaning up the clubhouse. The students work together to preserve the past for the future. As they work, the audience is submerged in the attention to detail turning around a tumble-down, paint-peeling, cobweb-covered, disorganised and ramshackle affair. This notion in itself of upgrading the old so it may last long into the contemporary world echoes a current nostalgia existing in Japan. Post-tsunami towns looking to rebuild are reluctant to accept changes in layout from town planners, making it difficult to defend the coast from future natural disasters and leaving towns unprepared and at a technical disadvantage for the economic future.

This light-hearted coming of age film is about making a choice about who you want to be, about being the best version of yourself. Umi and Shun make an incredible team, inspiring everyone around them and joining in whenever they can. As their friendship gets closer, the absence of her mother is keenly felt. In a dream sequence, she wakes up to find her mother in the kitchen as if she had never left and her father outside as if he’d never died. She is looking to resurrect a time and a way of life that has since disappeared. The simplicity in the scene of seeing her mother cooking in the kitchen is an emotionally raw moment with a Umi different from the entire first section of the film. The audience cannot help but desperately feel how trapped she thinks she has come to be. The bright shining face of the earlier scenes has gone, replaced with a miserable, trapped and confused teenage girl. Once her mother has returned and responsibilities are lifted from her shoulders, everything pours out and Umi falls into floods of tears. The calm composure she has maintained for so long finally gives way.

The story rotates around Umi and Shun and the causes they fight for and concern them. It looks at the different ideas of family and education. For three generations, Umi’s family has been well educated as doctors and professors with her father as the only exception as a sea captain. This contrasts with Shun’s parents whose father is a tugboat captain. He has good parents but with his campaigning and active involvement with the student council, he aspires to more. With change sweeping across Japan ahead of the Olympics, this is representational of the time. Her mother educating herself in America, Umi wanting to become a doctor like her mother, Shun considering a political career are all signs of change and development for a future Japan.

For Studio Ghibli, while From Up On Poppy Hill does not sink into the levels of emotion and nostalgia as found in Whisper In The Heart (1995) or Only Yesterday (1991), it is a beautifully simple love story that few but Ghibli would be able to make as effortlessly convincing.