Past Master: Goro Miyazaki’s From Up On Poppy Hill (2011) – DVD review
By avoiding the letter of daddy’s films, Miyazaki Jr. gets close to the spirit of Ghibli.
From Up On Poppy Hill
(Goro Miyazaki, 2011)
Poor Goro Miyazaki. It can’t be easy living in the shadow of a great director. Yet Hayao Miyazaki’s son didn’t make life easy for himself by trying to take on dad’s mantle with his Studio Ghibli debut, Tales From Earthsea – a fantasy as leaden as Hayao’s films were fleet-footed. Fortunately, with From Up On Poppy Hill, he’s learned his lesson and not even tried to emulate his father’s classics.
This is as sweet and simple as Ghibli can get, mostly reminiscent of Yoshifumi Kondo’s ace coming of age drama Whisper Of The Heart. Like that film, it’s a melting pot of teenage romance and intellectual culture, in this case the efforts of college pupils to save their clubhouse from demolition. Rather than fantastical tribes or creatures, in this case the supporting characters are Earthbound oddities – astronomy and philosophy students!
The setting is 1963, and that’s crucial to Goro’s distancing from the studio’s usual concerns. A lot of effort has gone into creating a vividly realised period film, from the Merseybeat-tinged score to the broader strokes of the animation: recognisably Ghibli but cleaner and plainer in its lines than Hayao’s famously complex style. The byword is innocence, the theme an elegy for what gets lost in the name of progress. The clubhouse is threatened because developers want to create something modern that will fit the city’s self-image in the run-up to the 1964 Tokyo Olympics… but lead character Umi falls in with the retro crowd who believes it’s vital to honour what has come before.
For Umi, it’s personal because she’s still grieving a father who died during the Korean War. That history hits close to home when she falls for fellow student activist Shun, a boy who it turns out she’s got an unexpected connection to. That storyline, which sails close to the wind but manages to pull back from being genuinely subversive, nearly mirrors the clubhouse plot in that it highlights the perils of turning your back on the past.
The subtext would be obvious even if recent events haven’t illuminated it with unusual clarity. First, Hayao Miyazaki announced his retirement; then Tokyo won its first Olympics (to take place in 2020) since the events depicted in this film. Those coincidences chime nearly with Goro’s attempt to honour his father, no longer a blind copyist but a smart adaptor of the traditional personality of Ghibli. Yes, it is simple and overly sentimental, but there’s a charm here that belies the evidence of Tales From Earthsea: maybe Goro really is his father’s son.