Film Review: From Up On Poppy Hill

Earlier this week I reviewed another Studio Ghibli film, Ocean Waves, which I wasn’t so keen on. Thankfully, shortly after watching Ocean Waves, we put on From Up on Poppy Hill, Studio Ghibli’s most recent DVD release and happiness was restored.

From Up on Poppy Hill is set in 1960s Japan and tells the story of Umi Matsuzaki. Umi lives with her grandmother and two younger siblings in her grandmother’s boarding house. With her mother away in America, her father dead and her grandmother elderly, Umi must help take care of her family and the business, cooking for everyone and cleaning the house around her schoolwork. Umi’s school has a strange, overrun club house, used almost exclusively by boys. Shun, a leader of the high school’s clubs and writer/publisher of the school newspaper meets Umi when she tries to help him after a stunt gone wrong. He later recruits her to help print the newspaper and the two start to form a bond, with Umi encouraging the other female students to support the campaign to save the clubhouse, which is falling apart and condemned to be torn down by the school board.

The two grow closer and one evening, Umi invites Shun to her house for dinner. Afterwards, she shows him a picture of three naval men, pointing out which one is her father. Shun seems shocked by the photo and makes his excuses to leave. We see that he has the same photo at home and is troubled by it, suggesting that there are closer links between Umi and Shun. They try to solve the mystery of their connection while working together to save the clubhouse.

From Up on Poppy Hill is another of the ‘not-much-happens-but-somehow-everything-happens’ stories that I love so much. Its plot (much like the lovely Whisper of the Heart) is fairly light, but the film is bursting with story. The relationships between characters are beautifully drawn, with every look, word and touch exchanged between Umi and Shun charged with meaning. The film captures perfectly the sweetness and longing that comes with first love, as our protagonists inch towards each other. There’s also a wonderful celebration of learning and of art, both in the clubs held in the ‘Latin Quarter’ (the club house) and in the beautiful paintings done by one of the boarding house guests. These things are presented as essential and key to our being and happiness. ‘Poppy Hill’ looks at the idea of identity and the legacy our family leave us, with both Shun and Umi trying to do what they think is right according to the teachings of their parents, but also having to discover who they want to be in their own right.

There’s such a peacefulness and calm to Studio Ghibli films. Even the ones that are full of action and battle still have moments of stillness in them. There’s something about those films not set in any kind of fantasy world, too, that makes me feel like things are right with the universe. They are full of moments of beauty, kindness and (as always) the power and pull of nature. ‘Poppy Hill’ is lovely to look at, with a sweet, tender story and a strong foot-holding in the goodness and kindness of others. I wanted to watch it again the second we had finished it and I’m not sure there’s much praise higher than that.

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