Destroy the old and you destroy your memory of the past – From up on Poppy Hill

To be the son of Hayao Miyazaki must be the greatest gift, and the greatest curse. Being the offspring of the legendary animation director means that if you have any interest in the art form what-so-ever, the only way you could be better off is if you were the offspring of Walt Disney. The flip side of this is that it does come with a very heavy burden, since people will assume “the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree”. This was pretty much the way things worked out for Goro Miyazaki.

Goro made his directorial debut with Tales from Earthsea, an animated movie based on the book Earthsea, by Ursula Le Guin. Considering it was his first feature length movie, most people knew that chances are it wasn’t going to be great. I sure as hell didn’t expect it to be great, and hoped for an average movie with a few good moments. Unfortunately, the movie was terrible. The action was flat, the animation was pretty poor, and the story was just plain boring. I completely lost interest and stopped watching half way through. I still don’t understand why the told they story that they did. Of the Earthsea stories that I’ve read, The Wizard of Earthsea would have been a much better story to adapt.

So unfortunately Goro caught quite a bit of criticism. Well, that’s what would have happened if Goro wasn’t the son of Hayao Miyazaki. When word hit the internet, Goro was, without a doubt, torn to shreds. Thankfully, he seems to have learnt from his mistakes in Tales from Earthsea, since From up on Poppy Hill (referred to hereafter as Poppy Hill) is really quite splendid.

Set in the early 60’s in Japan, Poppy Hill is the story of Shun and Umi, a boy and girl who both attend the same high school. Umi’s regular life as a hostess in her grandmother’s boarding house is interrupted when she meets Shun and inadvertently becomes involved in the protest to save the local clubhouse from being demolished. As Shun and Umi’s desire to save the clubhouse grows, so does their desire for each other.

Shun and Umi meet for the first time.

There are essentially two stories being told in Poppy Hill. The first story is a love story involving our two protagonists. The second is the story to save the local clubhouse that is considered a home by many of the boys in the area. I would have loved to have seen more overlap between these two stories, as it often seems that they are entirely separate, except for the fact that they involve the same characters. This may just be a difference in cultural views though, as the Japanese are notoriously well known for compartmentalising different aspects of their lives. I can’t really find much else to fault with the rest of the story. It unfolds at a nice pace, with a few twists and turns to keep us interested. It may be considered somewhat simplistic, but this movie has more in common with Studio Ghibli’s movies like Only Yesterday or Ocean Waves, than it does with Spirited Away or Princess Mononoke.

As with most of Studio Ghibli’s movies, the male and female characters are on very equal footing, and fill their expected roles very well. Once in a while a character steps out of their role to show someone how something is done, but they step back into their expected role once the point has been proven. This is the one thing I love about the way men and women are handled in Studio Ghibli movies. Men will generally do what men are good at, and women will do what women are good at. If there’s a realistic space where there’s room for blurring the gender boundaries, that’s where they’ll do it. They won’t place a women in a typically male role, or vice versa, without having a good reason to do it.

The animation for this movie can only really be described as effective. Effective may sound like a bit of an insult, but I say that because there’s never really any scenes which show off what Studio Ghibli can really do. It’s a realistic drama, with no action beyond people rushing to get places, so it’s not the kind of movie where the animators get to flex their muscles. Really, there’s no major flaws, but there’s very little to get excited about.

Take a look at the trailer for Ponyo to see what Studio Ghibli can do when they put their minds to it:

Having said that, I loved the backgrounds! Particularly the scenes in the clubhouse. It’s definitely the most exaggerated  location in the movie, and the little details really help to bring it to life. I haven’t watched a Studio Ghibli feature in a while, so maybe I just missed these details, or maybe my DVDs just don’t display that kind of detail. I’ll definitely have to go back and check if their backgrounds were always this good.

Click on the image for all the glorious detail.
Click on the image for all the glorious detail.

The soundtrack is definitely up my street, with a nice mix of lounge style Japanese vocals, and some jazzy tracks where the saxophone and piano take center stage. The style of music used is definitely reflective of the time (and is actually reminiscent of Kids on a slope).

I was hoping I could find one of their jazzier tracks, but sadly I was unable to. Here’s the main theme instead.

So despite a somewhat rocky start to his career, Goro is shaping up to be a very fine director. I look forward to his next movie.

Anime movie rating: A simple but effectively told coming of age story, with respectable animation and a very catchy soundtrack. Goro Miyazaki definitely steps things up from Tales from Earthsea. This anime movie will appeal to fans of more realistic dramas.


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