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A breezy, enjoyable film lacking the detail and depth of Ghibli's finest
Such is the greatness of Ghibli's backlog that each new release cannot hope to escape comparison with the old favourites. It has now been a full decade since the last truly great movie from the studio ('Spirited Away') and nine years since the last purely enjoyable one ('The Cat Returns'). All movies since had their moments, but their uneven quality whether it was a full-fledged fantasy like Howl's Moving Castle (2004) or more sedate affairs like last year's The Secret World of Arrietty (2010) did not make it easy for Ghibli's devoted following to love them unreservedly. Miyazaki Hayao's son, Goro, made his debut with Tales from Earthsea (2006), which wasn't received very well, prompting some to question whether Ghibli's future would be secure after Miyazaki Senior's inevitable final retirement. From Up on Poppy Hill is Goro's second feature, and while it is an accessible and enjoyable effort, it lacks the kind of profound detail and nostalgia that made Only Yesterday (1991) and Whisper of the Heart (1995) so special.
Set in Yokohama, Japan just before the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, Poppy Hill tells the story of Umi, a second-year high school girl who lives and works at a tenant house run by her grandmother. Her father was a sailor who was lost at sea during the Korean War and presumed dead; her mother is studying in the US and thus also an absent figure for Umi. Every morning she raises signal flags out on the garden which overlooks the ocean as a way to remember her lost father, before embarking on a daily routine rigidly structured around school and the chores she must perform at her home. One day she runs into a reckless, dashing senior named Shun, and soon allows her life to open up to the optimism and energy of the teen idealists who occupy Quartier Latin, a dilapidated school clubhouse where the more intellectually-disposed male students have set up various headquarters for their extracurricular activities. Umi helps out Shun with his newspaper printing, and ends up fighting alongside him and the occupants of the clubhouse to save Quartier Latin against the forces of change which holds sway in Japan. Meanwhile, unforeseen revelations about their families' past force Umi and Shun, who are increasingly drawn to each other, to reconsider their feelings.
The real-world setting and small-scale drama of Poppy Hill place the film in that category of the more contemplative and tranquil Ghibli animation alongside Only Yesterday and Whisper, but it doesn't come close to joining the two in the pantheon of the studio's most beloved hits. What those two movies did was to depict the everyday routine and the smallest trivial action with the same affection and wonder, not to mention painstaking detail, as it did flying dragons and wolf-gods; Ghibli treated things like sharpening a pencil or coming home after school like they were the most special things in the world, deserving of care and skill and attention - only we don't realize it. Only Yesterday and Whisper continue to resonate with their audience because they endeavoured to draw fantasy not from the outlandish but from the mundane, the normal, the everyday. They stand apart from the role-playing wish-fulfillment of countless animes and the likes of Harry Potter and The Matrix and suggest in their inimitable, tender way that we should treasure the lives we lead now, that they deserve the same kind of longing and wonder, and hinted at worthwhile fulfillment within real means.
Sadly, there's no such transcendental detail and affection in Poppy Hill nor the kind of daring whimsy which so invigorated classics like My Neighbour Totoro (1988) and Kiki's Delivery Service (1989). Thematically it's cookie-cutter safe, despite the fact that the post-war Japan about to begin a miraculous industrial rise would seem to be a rare and ripe backdrop for a more tellingly contextual study of a time of great change in Japanese society and the place in it for the young people and their environment that are drawn so handsomely in the film. There's great energy in Miyazaki's depiction of the students fighting to save the clubhouse due to make way for a more modern building, and the period detail of rural Yokohama as well as (more briefly) Tokyo in the throes of transformation is nicely realized and easily the best thing about the film. However, Miyazaki stops well short of dealing with the teen would-be activists and what they really represent: a poignant reminder of a lost generation of young Japanese idealists who ended up conforming to the overwhelming preponderance of materialism and political stagnation which came to define the rise of a new Japan in the Seventies and Eighties, and who would never again manage to bring to bear the sort of vigilant activism displayed in Poppy Hill.
Its breezy style is more reminiscent of The Cat Returns, but while that film was a concentrated distillation of the usual flight of fancy the studio specialized in and was aimed to literally take the audience on a short, thrilling ride, 'Poppy Hill' would have benefited from a more patient and intricate approach. There's certainly enjoyable set-pieces, like the girls cleaning up the dungeon-like school clubhouse which hitherto had been the exclusive domain of boys, or Umi going about her daily routine of grocery shopping and cooking for the students tenanting at her grandmother's house, but Miyazaki doesn't seem to have the confidence or patience to linger on each scene and let us observe what implications a country in transformation have on Umi; we just watch her get into one brief situation after another, few of which are compelling in plot or presentation, and then the film is over. Poppy Hill is certainly a diverting fare, endearing in places and easy to like, but it is in no way a return to form for the studio, and small improvement for the would-be pretender to Miyazaki Senior's throne.
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