From Up on Poppy Hill, the latest animated transmission from the out-world known as Studio Ghibli, shows Goro Miyazaki working in the same medium but in a wholly different timbre than his promising debut, Tales from Earthsea. Here, he has switched from imaginative myth-maker to chronicler of memory and nostalgia extremist, as his latest relays the tale of a pair of young students attempting to save a culturally and historically rich clubhouse where schoolboys indulge their myriad fascinations. Set in 1963, on the eve of the Japan Olympics, it is a story more concerned with traditionalism and history, adapted from Tetsuro Sayama and Chizuru Takahashi’s graphic novel of the same name by Keiko Niwa and Hayao Miyazaki, the director’s father and Niwa’s collaborator on the script to last year’s The Secret World of Arrietty.
The elder Miyazaki’s role here is crucial, as it lends a sense of genuine remembrance to the story; the film’s director was born four years after the events depicted here. Though it unfolds as a slightly more detailed variation on the familiar let’s-save-the-rec-center plot, the film is laced with melancholy, as the main character, Umi (Masami Nagasawa), was left fatherless by the Korean War; she hoists military flags every morning in his honor. It’s this at-dawn activity that catches the attentions of Shun (Junichi Okada), the clubhouse’s clear alpha-male, and leads him to write a poem about her that rouses her from her rigidly scheduled day. See, while her professor mom is in America, Umi is left to run their boarding house and take care of her sister and grandmother.
Even before Shun and Umi grow close, it’s clear that the film is concerned with legacy and generational importance, a point loudly made by the film’s unquantifiable distrust of the new. It’s an element to the story that seems to stand firmly against the lively sense of explorative creation that has powered Ghibli thus far, and the film is nothing if not furiously nationalistic in its drama, attesting to the need for a traditional national identity even and perhaps especially when entering a global marketplace. If Miyazaki never crudely pushes this agenda, it certainly still limits the power of the story’s stranger facets.
Ostensibly orphaned by the Korean War, Shun eventually learns that Umi’s late father may have also been his father, abstracting and deeply complicating his budding romance with Umi and their cleanup initiative for the clubhouse. It throws a hard, wildly taboo question into the pale thematic landscape: How much does history really matter? Sadly, this risky move never causes the pretty-yet-predictable visuals to mutate or abstract, and the concept is stubbed out before it can get actually fascinating.
The film’s disinterest in symbolism and fantasy isn’t the issue: Isao Takahata’s best work for Ghibli is more akin to Ozu than the films of colleague and collaborator Miyazaki. What limits From Up on Poppy Hill is its seeming whitewashing of some tough subjects, including the unseen consequences of war and the role of women in post-war Japan. The film’s central confusion of familial bonds is an alluring metaphor, but the film’s weak narrative drive favors the thin, overarching dramatic conceit of the pending demolition of the clubhouse. Not surprisingly, the clubhouse is the most visually enticing part of the film, appearing not unlike a never-land for the culturally and intellectually voracious. This one image suggests the cluttered, conflicting and ever expanding role of history in the modern world, an idea the rest of the film intermittently feels ambivalent towards or in direct opposition to.