From Up on Poppy Hill

From Up on Poppy Hill
From Up on Poppy Hill opens today, Friday March 22nd, at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.

From Up on Poppy Hill (Director: Goro Miyazaki): Japan is home to the most mature anim­ated film industry in the world. Mature in both senses of the word. First, they have been mak­ing anim­ated films for a very long time, and these films are quite often com­mer­cially suc­cess­ful. Second, the industry is mature in that it doesn’t just make enter­tain­ment for chil­dren. In con­trast to North America, where the terms “com­ics” and “car­toons” bear a slightly pejor­at­ive nuance, in Japan, every­one reads manga (illus­trated stor­ies, often seri­al­ized) and watches anime (anim­ated films or tele­vi­sion pro­grammes). The sub­ject mat­ter is incred­ibly broad, as well. You can think of any type of story and chances are that Japan has a manga and/or anime about it.

Studio Ghibli has been among the most suc­cess­ful cre­at­ors of anim­ated work. They’re cer­tainly the most well-known out­side of Japan. This is mostly due to the vis­ion of mas­ter anim­ator Hiyao Miyazaki. Many of his anim­ated fea­tures (My Neighbour Totoro, Spirited Away) are as beloved by adults as by chil­dren. The latest fea­ture film from Ghibli is From Up on Poppy Hill, and this one is aimed squarely at adults. This nos­tal­gia-soaked story will prob­ably not have a lot of res­on­ance with any­one who hasn’t already passed through their teen­age years. Nevertheless the film, writ­ten by Hiyao Miyazaki and dir­ec­ted by his son Goro, topped the Japanese box office in 2011 for good reason.

Umi is a Yokohama school­girl liv­ing in her grandmother’s board­ing house in 1963. Mother is away study­ing in America, and Father, a sup­ply ship cap­tain, never returned from the Korean War. Nevertheless, Umi is an ener­getic and hard-work­ing young woman, cook­ing and clean­ing for the board­ing house guests. The one sign that not all is well is her daily morn­ing ritual of rais­ing sig­nal flags as a trib­ute to her miss­ing father. Are they a memorial, or does she really think he’ll find his way home by fol­low­ing them?

At school, she becomes involved romantic­ally with Shun, the editor of the school paper, and throws her­self into his cru­sade to save the dilap­id­ated club­house where the paper (and every other boys’ club) has its office. Shun and his friends don’t believe in des­troy­ing the past, even if the rest of the coun­try is eagerly tear­ing down the old to make way for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Instead, Umi and Shun recruit many of the stu­dents to clean and restore the old build­ing. Along the way, their bud­ding romance is com­plic­ated by a fam­ily secret, but this melo­dra­matic twist only adds to the lovely poignancy of the film.

When I call the film nos­tal­gia-soaked, I mean it. It’s set fifty years ago, and yet every­one in it is con­tend­ing with events from even earlier. Japan in the 1960s was eager to throw off the leg­acy of the Second World War and rejoin the world, even if it meant for­get­ting the many sac­ri­fices its people made. It’s lovely that the ones try­ing to hon­our the past are teen­agers, who often seem uncon­cerned with things that happened last year, never mind things that occurred before they were born. Certainly Umi’s long­ing for her father is a con­trib­ut­ing factor, but the club­house pro­ject adds another ele­ment, and the boys’ respect for tra­di­tion in the face of their eld­ers’ desire for change seems quaint and ideal­istic.

But the film is also brave for even sug­gest­ing that the mil­it­ary losses of Japan, con­sidered the aggressor in its wars against China and the Allies, are worth hon­our­ing. Those who died were mem­bers of fam­il­ies, who mourned for and in many cases struggled without them. Their qual­it­ies of bravery and sac­ri­fice should not be for­got­ten in the shame over a mis­guided polit­ical ideo­logy. Miyazaki (both father and son) finds a way to per­son­al­ize these losses in a mov­ing story about change that still finds room to hon­our what has come before.

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