There was an undeniable air of suspicion that arose when Goro Miyazaki was named as director of Tales from Earthsea. After all, the son of Hayao Miyazaki had spent a lengthy career as a landscape architect, before eventually coming to work for the family business as curator of the Studio Ghibli museum. The younger Miyazaki was by no means without artistic talent, and long visits with his dad at the studio meant that he understood the process of animation and Ghibli's approach to it well. But directing at Ghibli was not something one rushed into; other directors, like Hiromasa Yonebashi and Yoshifumi Kondō, apprenticed as line animators and later animation directors for years before taking the director's chair. Tellingly, the older Miyazaki wasn't convinced by the choice, and openly disapproved of his son's appointment as director. The two didn't speak much during Earthsea's production.
We have to have this father-and-son conversation, because after that uncomfortable situation and the resulting head-scratcher of a film that was Tales from Earthsea, both men worked together to create this film, From Up On Poppy Hill. Goro directed it and drew the storyboards, but Hayao wrote the script, together with Ghibli regular Keiko Niwa. Unlike Earthsea, ostensibly based on Ursula K. LeGuin's 6-volume fantasy saga, Poppy Hill's source material is a little closer to home—a 1979 shoujo manga by Tetsurō Sayama and Chizuru Takahashi that ran in Nakayoshi. In one of the interviews, the elder Miyazaki explains that they wanted to do a period drama, but something set in 1980 would've seemed a little too recent. The studio selected Poppy Hill because of its more remote timeframe and setting, and pushed it back a few years to boot.
It's easy enough to see why Miyazaki junior and Ghibli did this. Even moreso than the characters, this film delights in showing off the boarding house's cramped but efficient kitchen, cozy backyard, plus other details like the boats and trucks that whirr around Yokohama. There's a fairly interesting plot at hand, but the movie spends an awful lot of time establishing its time and place, right down to the intriguing motif of Kyu Sakamoto's “Ue o Muite Arukou” repeating in the background several times. To me, this is a particularly interesting touch; the song hit big in Japan in ‘61, but by the time 1963 rolled around, it was once again a huge hit… in the United States.
To my surprise, Poppy Hill's story is one of its weaker points. The elder Miyazaki has a pretty good record as a screenwriter, but here he sticks closely to the by-the-numbers shoujo soap opera plot, in which the teenaged Umi, still struggling to cope with the loss of her father, abruptly falls for Shun, a member of the school's newspaper club embroiled in a fight to save the campus's dilapidated clubhouse. As Umi moves in to help, it becomes apparent that Shun reciprocates her feelings. But then, at a house party, the two make a troubling discovery: each one has the same old photo of three handsome young men, and each of them identify the same man in the photo as their father. In light of that revelation, a relationship seems out of the question.
Like I said, the film's main story, the relationship between Umi and Shun, is a bit rote. This is kind of amusing coming from a guy like Hayao Miyazaki, who nowadays rarely misses a chance to moan about the state of the anime business and its lack of creativity. But underneath Poppy Hill's blandness is a wealth of smaller details that make the film worth seeing. Goro Miyazaki's vision of 1963 Yokohama is breathtaking (in an interview on the disc, he muses that shipping hubs and harbors today seem vast and remote; the harbors of old Yokohama were so much more inviting), a city awash in greenery and clusters of piers and boats and kids going to school. The political landscape in Japan was interesting in the 1960s, with rapid economic and educational growth leading to a variety of student and labor opposition movements. This is rendered in miniature as Shun and his fellow students hold a rally arguing for the preservation of the Latin Quarter, the boys’ beloved, filthy clubhouse. The principal sneers and walks out of the protest silently, secure that he's holding the trump card of the school director's approval for new construction. But what do Umi and Shun do when they learn this? They make for Tokyo to plead their case to the director himself, that's what.
The film's animation also has its finer and weaker points. Let me start by saying that I do like and appreciate the work of Katsuya Kondo, character designer for this film and the man currently most responsible for the way Studio Ghibli films look and feel. But here's the thing: the original manga looks totally different, almost unrecognizable. We've had enough Ghibli-looking films that I'd rather see more experimentation with visuals, but only Isao Takahata seems willing to do that. Takahata took this risk in his My Neighbors the Yamadas, and that's probably why we don't see it here—while Yamadas scored high in its artistic quality, it had disappointing box office returns. That may be why the studio plays it safe here, but I do feel like this movie could've looked better.
Then there's the technical quality of the animation. Miyazaki and Takahata's movies exude energy—they have a snappiness, a playfulness to them. By contrast, From Up On Poppy Hill is is colorful and beautiful, but very deliberate, almost stately in its movement and style. There's even a part when Umi, late for a trip down to the market, accepts a bike ride from Shun. Riding a bike down a hill at dusk should present a fun challenge for a daring animator, but here the sequence is startlingly static. Poppy Hill looks as good as the rest of the Ghibli library, but it doesn't move as well. You'll notice this.
Finally, there's the soundtrack. Despite featuring the aforementioned Sakamoto tune and the performance of a school song late in the film, a march that reminds me, in turn, of “It's a Small World After All” and “Der Fuhrer's Face, ” Satoshi Takebe's musical score, while awash in pleasant, poppy piano jams, is kinda jarringly contemporary at times. Despite this, the songs are good, and it's good for the studio to take a break from Joe Hisaishi's slower, dreamier approach to scoring film. As Umi and Shun, Masami Nagasawa and Junichi Okada are full of confidence and chemistry, holding together the Japanese version brilliantly. The dub is enjoyable for precisely the opposite reason; Sarah Bolger's Umi and Anton Yelchin's Shun are perfectly serviceable, but they're overshadowed by a bizarre and enjoyable ensemble voice cast, including Bruce Dern, Christina Hendricks, Jamie Lee Curtis, and my favorite, Ron “Richie Cunningham” Howard as the high school's blustery philosophy club president. Both versions have their finer points.
The blu-ray is what I've started to think of as your typical Ghibli blu-ray—no technical issues to speak of, and a set of extras that always includes at least one mini-documentary or interview (in this case, Hayao Miyazaki introducing the theme song at a humble press conference held right at Studio Ghibli itself) and the storyboards synched up to the soundtrack. I found this feature too intriguing to turn down, as Goro Miyazaki had made his mark at Ghibli when studio chief Toshio Suzuki first asked him to draw Earthsea's storyboards, then to direct the film himself when he saw the promising results. They're pretty revealing – a lot of background details that I would've ordinarily ascribed to the background artists actually came straight from Goro's pencil. The younger Miyazaki, hard at work on Ronia the Robber's Daughter, is still making his case as a director, but he's certainly a good enough artist to be working at Studio Ghibli.
In yet another disc extra, Hayao Miyazaki
stands up after the first screening of From Up On Poppy Hill
at the studio itself, with much of the staff in attendance, and immediately starts apologizing for the screenplay. “We were two months late finishing it,” he confesses, “and if we'd got it done in time, the movie would've looked very different.” In this case, it's clear that Miyazaki's “very different” means “much better.” I found myself both annoyed by this—after all, the movie's just fine—and impressed with the guy's work ethic. The second the thing is in the can, he starts to complain… about himself. Ultimately, From Up On Poppy Hill
is a workmanlike but very worthy addition to the Ghibli library, and a sturdy rebuttal to the attractive fiasco that was Tales of Earthsea
. The film's shines when it embraces Goro Miyazaki
's original goal, which was to paint a compelling picture of old-time Yokohama. It's very evocative, in terms of its time and place. When defending the rickety Latin Quarter, Umi makes a remark about how the building makes its occupants feel connected to the past. Watching the ships pass by in the harbor below Umi's house, you'll just about start to feel that connection yourself.