Directed by Goro Miyazaki, son of Studio Ghibli figurehead Hayao Miyazaki, From Up on Poppy Hill (2011) is a delightful coming-of-age drama, made in a similar vein to 1995’s Whisper of the Heart. A classic tale of boy meets girl set in 1960s Japan, Umi (Masami Nagasawa) and Shun (Junichi Okada) first cross paths when the former helps the latter up after he recklessly jumps from their school’s rooftop in protest to the planned closure of their dilapidated clubhouse. The pair’s coastal suburb of Yokohama is being drastically altered due to the forthcoming Tokyo Olympics, modernising the town beyond recognition.
However, a small group of wise-beyond-their-years teenagers believe that preserving the areas rich cultural heritage is more important than constructing a aesthetically pleasing veneer for this upcoming global celebration of sport. The pair soon become closer when Umi begins assisting at the school’s newspaper, however a shocking revelation puts their blossoming romance on hold indefinitely.
Despite the Ghibli label being a mark of pedigree within animation, Goro’s name has become somewhat less assured after his debut Tales from Earthsea (2006) opened to harsh disapproval from both critics and audiences. However, it’s clear from the sun-drenched, saccharine-sweet opening sequences of From Up on Poppy Hill that this is a film cut from a very different cinematic fabric. It’s the delightful sixties tinged soundtrack and nostalgic setting of Miyazaki Jr.’s sophomore feature which is by far its greatest achievement, separating it from the archetypal template of the Ghibli world whilst simultaneously remaining incredibly familiar through its painstakingly hand drawn animation and vibrant, upbeat dialogue.
Whilst lacking any of the mystical charm or aesthetic spectacle of the studio’s more recognisable films, From Up on Poppy Hill remains a thoroughly enjoyable tale of heightened adolescent confusion and teenage romance wrapped in a contemporary frame narrative of youthful Japanese political activism. That said, there is the feeling that something is missing from this high school illustration of civil awakening and diplomatic empowerment – perhaps something which could have more effectively tapped into the country’s current state of political disenfranchisement after the devastation of the 3/11 tsunami.
Whilst undeniably forgettable, From Up on Poppy Hill remains a perfectly enjoyable and serviceable slice of childhood melodrama that will sit in comfortably amongst Ghibli’s extensive back catalogue. Now it just remains to be seen if Goro Miyazaki’s learning curve will continue to ascend towards the acceptable level demanded by Ghibli’s passionate and loyal enthusiasts – including the now-retired Miyazaki Sr.