From Up On Poppy Hill, anime drama & Studio Ghibli’s future

With From Up On Poppy Hill, out on disc today, Ryan looks at the rich detail in Studio Ghibli's dramas, and its post-Miyazaki future...

Studio Ghibli may be best known for its woodland spirits and castles in the sky, but there’s so much more to the Japanese animation house’s output than colourful fantasy. Whether directed by founders Hayao Miyazaki, Isao Takahata, or newer animators, such as Hiromasa Yonebayashi (Arrietty), Studio Ghibli’s movies are equally alive in their more dramatic, quiet moments.

From Up On Poppy Hill, released in Japan in 2011 and out now on home release in the UK, may surprise some viewers with its gentle period romance, but it provides a fresh example of how Studio Ghibli can breathe life into even the most prosaic activities. From Up On Poppy Hill is the second feature from Goro Miyazaki – the son of the now retired Miyazaki Senior – and it’s markedly different from his debut, the fantasy adaptation, Tales From Earthsea.

Told from the perspective of Umi, a 16-year-old student who also helps run a boarding house in 1960s Yokohama, From Up On Poppy Hill is a coming of age story in a country itself undergoing huge industrial and social change. It’s such a serene, measured film that it’s hard to believe that From Up On Poppy Hill‘s production was a relatively troubled one behind the scenes. While Ghibli’s animators were around half way through creating the film, the tragic Tohoku earthquake and tsunami occurred, and the resulting blackouts forced the team to work at night time to keep on schedule – and understandably, the disaster cast a psychological pall over the production.

“While most of us were not personally affected by the disaster, there were a lot of us who did go through a period of mental affectedness because of what happened and that took some time to recover from,” Goro told the LA Times earlier this year.

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Remarkably, Ghibli’s artists fought through the disruption and trauma of this event, and From Up On Poppy Hill came out as planned on the 16th July 2011. Fittingly, it’s a film about a generation of young people dealing with the aftermath of war and personal tragedy – poignant timing, for a company reeling from the devastating effects of that year’s disaster.

Studio Ghibli’s animated dramas

Although not necessarily representative of Studio Ghibli’s work as a whole, From Up On Poppy Hill is by no means its first film to focus on drama rather than fantasy. Isao Takahata’s Grave Of The Fireflies (1988) was the first and most harrowing, a heartbreaking, unforgettable drama about youngsters surviving among the embers of World War II’s fire bombings.

Only Yesterday (1991), again directed by Takahata, was a more reflective drama, about a young woman’s childhood memories and how they’re stirred up by a visit to the countryside. Evoking the ‘Tatami mat’ cinematography of Yasujiro Ozu’s movies, Only Yesterday was told with beautifully controlled, largely still images, with a low view point and subtle, expressive character animation.

Ocean Waves (1993), an animated TV movie directed by Tomomi Mochizuki, was a similarly low-key romance. Whisper Of The Heart (1995), the only feature directed by Yoshifumi Kondo before his sudden death in 1998, was a high school drama with only light flourishes of fantasy (its adorable feline character, the Baron, later got his own spin-off movie, The Cat Returns, in 2002).

Perhaps the most unusual of Ghibli’s animated dramas, My Neighbors The Yamadas (1999) played out as a series of light-hearted short stories about everyday family life in Japan. Its episodic structure and loose art style made it an unexpected entry in the studio’s canon, but it’s full of sweet, gentle humour.

From Up On Poppy Hill most closely resembles Only Yesterday and Whisper Of The Heart in terms of its style and tone. Animated drama films may be comparatively unusual – especially outside Japan – but Poppy Hill proves that a film about simple, everyday events can still be both grounded and exciting to the eye. It’s also interesting to note that, although Hayao Miyazaki didn’t direct them, he was always keenly involved in some way: he produced Only Yesterday, and wrote the screenplays for both Whisper Of The Heart and From Up On Poppy Hill.

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It’s only at the end of his career, with The Wind Rises, that Hayao Miyazaki has taken up the directing reins on a feature-length animated drama of his own. After a string of lyrical fantasies, it’s this biopic about the designer of a Japanese fighter plane that ultimately sums up the common elements in so many of Miyazaki’s films: a love of flying, the beauty of the natural world, and an unwavering eye for the poetry in everyday life.

Nostalgia and transformation in Poppy Hill

Studio Ghibli’s films frequently meditate in some way on Japan’s transformation after World War II. And after the turbulence and losses of the 1940s, it’s understandable that Hayao Miyazaki’s generation would look back on the 1950s and 60s with a sense of nostalgia – something that underpins both My Neighbor Totoro (1988) and Only Yesterday, with its wistful recollections of childhood memories.

From Up On Poppy Hill fits in this category, set as it is in the idyllic port town of Yokahama in 1963. Full of dirt roads, intimate shops and friendly fisherman, it’s almost unrecognisable from the industrial city of the present – now one of the most populous places in Japan.

As painted in beautiful detail by Goro Miyazaki and his army of artists, the boarding house Umi runs is rich with history: a former hospital built in the turn-of-the-century, it’s influenced by western architecture, but retains its own traditional touches – Umi’s grandmother has her own annex, where sliding doors open out onto a beautiful garden overlooking the sea. Both here and throughout the rest of Miyazaki’s Yokohama, there’s a sense of a place with a rich past that, like the Latin Quarter club house Umi and her school friends are trying to save, is on the verge of disappearing into history.

Studio Ghibli and food

The preparation of food – not to mention the pleasure of eating – has long been a recurring element in Studio Ghibli’s movies. Witness, for example, the way Hayao Miyazaki animates the two child protagonists in Ponyo (2008), as a mother prepares them a bowl of noodle broth. She breaks an egg into each bowl, puts a lid on each, before removing them again a minute or two later with a flourish. For the children, the way the heat of the broth poaches the eggs is nothing less than magic – and we can’t help but share in their delight.

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From Up On Poppy Hill places cooking front and centre of its huddled little drama, opening with a scene where Umi prepares an elaborate breakfast of rice, eggs and soup for her guests. As she diligently performs the balancing act of getting all these disparate pots and pans frying and boiling at just the right time, a disarmingly cute song plays over the top: “The pot is bubbling, the rice is steaming,” the lyrics go. “Another beautiful breakfast together, and I made it all for you.”

It’s only when all the cooking’s done – a process which is exhausting just to look at – that we get a punch line, of sorts, to this scene: Umi takes off her apron and rushes off to school. It’s an early indication of Umi’s almost super-human ability to juggle home life, education, after-school activities – such as lettering the school paper by hand and fixing up the cluttered old club house –  as well as engaging in a tentative romance with heroic fellow student, Shun.

Throughout the film, scenes where families and friends eat together turn up time and again, and Miyazaki lingers lovingly over shots of elaborate lunches and outdoor dinners piled high. With so many of the characters in From Up On Poppy Hill dealing with loss in some way – both Umi and Shun lost relatives in the Korean war – there’s a real sense in these scenes of friends and family pulling together to commune and put their sadness behind them.

Although food is a constant theme, the New York Times recently reported that Miyazaki wasn’t consciously aware of this until after the film was finished. He did, however, say that he used eating as a means of revealing hidden layers to his characters.

“To eat is to live, and animated characters can’t really come to life if they don’t feel alive,” Miyazaki said. “So eating was something I looked very closely at. How characters eat can tell you a lot about them. And while they’re eating, what they’re thinking at the time can be expressed too.”

Period detail and universality

From Up On Poppy Hill takes place shortly before a specific moment in Japan’s history, when the 1964 Tokyo Olympics marked Japan’s rebirth as a forward-thinking, technological nation; before the unveiling of modern marvels like the bullet train, and a huge development programme which would transform the country forever. So much of Poppy Hill’s rich detail is invested in things that no longer exist, or things that were only just built at the time, like the Tokyo Tower, which was just five years old at the time of the film’s events.

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Yet despite all this history, which is so specific to Japanese culture, there is so much in From Up On Poppy Hill that translates directly to the experiences of people all over the world: its drama about first loves and school friendships. Its scenes of eating and revelry. Even the themes of loss and change aren’t peculiar to Japan. The ability to match the personal, the specific and the historical with the universal is what makes Studio Ghibli’s films so unique.

The exacting standards of Hayao Miyazaki, and the future of Studio Ghibli

As a driving force behind Studio Ghibli since its inception, Hayao Miyazaki’s exacting sense of detail and fierce work ethic are a major part of why his animation studio is now one of the most respected in the world. It’s telling, in fact, that while this article’s heaped praise on the care and attention to detail in From Up On Poppy Hill, Miyazaki Sr was quite critical of some aspects of his son’s work.

One of the disc’s extras shows the aftermath of a private staff screening, where Miyazaki gets up after Poppy Hill’s final credits roll to address his team of animators. He acknowledges the difficulties imposed by the earthquake and tsunami, and complements certain aspects of the film, before picking fault with the “stiff” knee movements of the characters’ walking animations, and the “weird” quality of some of the background renderings.

An example of just how keen Miyazaki’s eye for detail is – not to mention his forthright way of outlining where things have gone wrong – the animator’s merciless criticism might seem cruel, were it not for the huge demands he’s placed on himself over decades of work. From the beginning of his career to its end, his dedication has been remarkable, as he’s fastidiously storyboarded, checked and often redrawn the countless thousands of keyframes in each of his films.

Hayao Miyazaki’s control over his studio’s output has been such that, in the aftermath of his retirement, some have inevitably wondered what impact his departure will have. Certainly, with Miyazaki Sr gone and co-founder Isao Takahata now 77, it’ll soon be up to a new generation of animators to take control of the studio’s creative future. Miyazaki admitted as much himself in his moving farewell press conference, where he said:

“I’m expecting the young staff will want to do something. When I was 30 or 40 years, I had a lot of plans and strong determination. It depends whether the young staff have that determination.”

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From Up On Poppy Hill isn’t perfect, and some aspects of its animation may not be quite as fluid or natural as the older master’s work is, but it marks a huge leap forward in growth for Goro Miyazaki. Where Tales From Earthsea felt tentative and stilted in places, Poppy Hill feels more confident, with Miyazaki Jr seemingly more at home on this smaller yet no less rich canvas.

There’s a sense that, away from the dragons and fantasy of Earthsea, the younger Miyazaki revels in the little details here – the club house dangerously overstuffed with clutter, how the setting sun plays off the little wooden buildings of a club house, or the way a young man holds an umbrella in the rain, but still manages to get one shoulder soaking wet.

Poppy Hill feels truly alive in these intimate moments, as all Studio Ghibli movies do. And if Goro Miyazaki can hone his craft still further on his next film, then he could become a vital new creative leadfor the studio. Goro’s not alone, either; Arrietty’s Hiromasa Yonebayashi is reportedly at the helm of the Porco Rosso sequel, The Last Sortie – an aviation fantasy Hayao Miyazaki handed over after saying, “there is so much an older man can do.”

Between the young Miyazaki and Yonebayashi – and the other potential directors coming up through the company’s ranks – then Studio Ghibli’s films will hopefully continue to soar for many more years to come.

From Up On Poppy Hill is out on DVD and Blu-ray now in the UK.