From Up On Poppy Hill, the latest UK release from widely adored Japanese animation maestros Studio Ghibli, has had some slightly lukewarm reviews but I really loved it. Ghibli’s best known for the brilliant, imaginative and often morally complex fantasy films of Hayao Miyazaki, with Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke in particular appearing frequently on those “movies you must see before you die” lists, but the studio has also produced a number of much more grounded coming-of-age tales set in painstakingly well-realised towns, cities and rural areas of Japan and for my money Poppy Hill is a worthy successor to the gentle but powerfully affecting Only Yesterday* and Whisper Of The Heart. Directed from a script co-written by Hayao by his son Goro Miyazaki (whose previous effort Tales Of Earthsea was a rare Ghibli misfire, although as ever beautiful to look at) it’s set in the early sixties when the Japanese government was using the attention and resources gained by hosting the 1964 Olympics as a mechanism for proving itself as a fully modernised society comfortable with concreting over elements of its culture both honourable and dubious. Our lead character is a bright and resourceful teenage girl called Umi who has taken on the running of a boarding house from her absentee mother, a duty she’s been able to calmly discharge while still keeping up with her schoolwork right until she happens upon the handsome and mysterious Shun, a student activist with whom she has a bit more in common than is immediately apparent. Meanwhile a campaign to save a charming but rundown clubhouse and social centre from demolition is underway and some surprising connections are made.
It’s impossible to imagine any Western studio putting money into any live action film as low-key and subtle as Poppy Hill let alone an animation as rich and gorgeous and detailed as this. Both main plot lines are allowed to develop organically and at a pace that allows you to appreciate the value of the relationships and institutions that are being questioned and the characters for all their elegantly line-drawn and pastel-shaded appearances feel like real, vulnerable people. While the first half an hour or so seems a bit slow, leaving you wondering a little where it’s all going, the set-up scenes turn out to be well worth it, paving the way for a moving drama that’s all the more successful for not featuring any villainous, or even unsympathetic, characters whatsoever. Even the two or three scenes of conflict dodge the bullet marked melodrama by being undermined by some excellent comic touches. I’ll confess I didn’t see where the storyline would end up and found myself feeling decidedly teary when the big cards got laid on the table.
But even if you don’t feel you have to visit the cinema to get emotional scenes of family revelations (you can get all that in Eastenders, surely?) I’d still recommend Poppy Hill for it’s visual sumptuousness and the care and taste with which backdrops and effects and the smallest of incidental bits and bobs have been put on screen. There are some beautiful and haunting flashback and dream sequences here, but just as lovely are the bits where people prepare meals (in how many films have you seen the correct procedure for measuring out a portion of rice?) or mop floors or re-plaster walls or just have a bit of a laugh. This is a film that’s likely to get overlooked in favour of flashier productions when folk are investigating Ghibli’s back catalogue, but really in a lot of ways it’s right up there with the best of them.
* this sensitive portrayal of the choices faced by a troubled young woman isn’t very well known, mainly because the American studio refused to sanction an English language dub due to a reference to menstruation in the script. Enlightened, huh?