For more than a decade, the world's most famous anime studio has been associated with fantasy stories, usually epic and spectacular (Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away) though sometimes told on a smaller scale (The Cat Returns, The Secret World of Arrietty). However, back in the '90s, Studio Ghibli made several “slice of life” dramas – tales of ordinary life - often of a boy-meets-girl type. From Up On Poppy Hill fits that category, while at the same time it's a period drama, set in 1963 Yokohama.
Before getting into the film, though, there's something to get out of the way first. Studio Ghibli's name has been a mark of quality since the studio began. That reputation was dented by Tales from Earthsea (2006), a critically-panned version of the Earthsea novels by Ursula K. Le Guin. The film was directed by Goro Miyazaki, son of Hayao, who came away with a “Worst Director” prize from Japanese critics. If Ghibli's name is a mark of quality, then Goro's is a liability.
Poppy Hill, like Earthsea, is directed by Goro Miyazaki, but it bears no resemblance to Earthsea. (If Goro had made Poppy Hill under a pseudonym, it's hard to imagine anyone could've guessed.) Perhaps Poppy Hill's co-writer made all the difference. Hayao Miyazaki himself helped adapt the story, which was based on a 1980 shojo manga by Tetsuro Samaya and Chizuru Takahashi. Whether or not Miyazaki Senior's presence made the difference, Poppy Hill feels like a fresh start, as pointed up from the first scenes.
From its beginning, Poppy Hill has a jaunty spring in its step. A jazzy soundtrack (by Ghibli newcomer Satoshi Takebe) accompanies the industrious girl protagonist Umi, as she performs her morning chores with expert efficiency.Rarely are Poppy Hill's characters not in motion: hurrying, running, cycling, climbing. For example, one conversation takes place between Umi and the boy Shun as they hasten up flights of stairs at school. It's a “mundane” scene, but as so often in anime, especially Ghibli's, the mundane becomes special when it's realised in moving drawings.
There are two plots in Poppy Hill, one personal, one communal. The personal plot is (unsurprisingly) girl meets boy, mostly from Umi's viewpoint. At first she's affronted by the bold Shun, then slowly realises that, hey, she likes him. As teen romances go, it's more formal than those in many anime. Both Umi and Shun have a strong sense of propriety and responsibility (there was a cuter slice-of-life romance in Ghibli's 1995 film, Whisper of the Heart.) Then an unwelcome development jeopardises the pair's relationship, a plot point that's had some critics write the film off as a midlist melodrama. Unfortunately, it's impossible to discuss in detail without spoiling the story.
Meanwhile, the communal plot revolves round the student campaign to save a dilapidated French club house. Early on, Umi and her sister venture into the cluttered, lively, mysterious space, down corridors and up stairs (the sequence is reminiscent of the bathhouse scenes in Spirited Away.) The building is imbued with a group, collective spirit. In the first scenes, it's the spirit of the boys who've turned the clubhouse into their private geeky domain. Later on, though, girls enter the building too, wielding mops and brooms while the males cower before them.
Ghibli often frames its protagonists against communities. In Poppy Hill, though,the community predominates. The liveliest scenes show the male students joyfully brawling one moment, then linking arms and singing in jolly solidarity, while the girls look on bemused. For all their personal problems, Umi and Shun are shown becoming part of the greater save-the-clubhouse movement. In effect, the couple's unfolding story becomes a symbol for the clubhouse one. Both strands, it turns out, are about people needing to reclaim or preserve continuity with their own history.
Despite the boisterous life of the crowd scenes, the film's presentation is unassuming. Ghibli fans watching Poppy Hill's early scenes with a sceptical eye may find them static-looking and cut-price beside the studio's megabusters. The same sceptics may also get irritated by the characters' mouths, which look off-puttingly round and red when they speak. There are few standout moments of character animation, though a late scene between Umi and her mother is very tender. Shun and Umi aren't greatly charismatic, but they're presented with a respect unusual for anime youngsters, and enough life to shake off any stuffiness.
Like many Ghibli films, it's the detail and strength of Poppy Hill's drawn world, the feeling of inhabiting it, which lures the viewer in. The town streets and stalls have the pleasurable bustle we expect from Ghibli, though the lack of fantasy means the film can feel like one of the old World Masterpiece Theatre TV anime, to which Ghibli's founders contributed. There's a sweet moment in Poppy Hill when Umi and Shun career downhill on a bicycle, the dynamic image playfully expressing the youngsters' feelings. Later, there's a beautiful expressionist sequence when Shun learns troubling facts about who he is while riding a boat through Yokohama's harbour, white fog erasing its familiar landmarks.
The film has been written down in some quarters as being bland and forgettable, but its modesty and formality has a quiet strength to it. Poppy Hill may look old-fashioned, but it's likely to age gracefully through the decades, like the rest of Ghibli's library.
The film has a simple but vividly shown message, that the young of Japan, acting together, can achieve things, that they can broadcast their views to the wider world and the older generation. In Poppy Hill's last act, the characters must travel into Tokyo to get their views heard. This cues a lovingly detailed Ghibli vision of the capital a half-century ago, but it also shows the youngsters' thrill (mixed with frustrations) as they enter the political process for the first time. The finale is theatrically contrived, with a ridiculous race against time for Shun and Umi; but if Papa Miyazaki got away with importing a Hindenburg-style airship catastrophe in Kiki's Delivery Service, then why not?