From Up on Poppy Hill

by James McNally on March 22, 2013

in Theatrical Release

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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