Remember how, ages ago, I did that list of my favourite non-Disney animated movies? Yeah, that list is probably due an update. There are so many fantastic films that I’ve discovered or re-discovered since then: Coraline, Prince of Egypt and of course Princess Mononoke. Still the highest scoring animated movie I’ve ever reviewed on this blog (or tied for first place if you count Who Framed Roger Rabbit). So when I was asked to review From Up On Poppy Hill, another Studio Ghibli film by Miyazaki that I’d never even heard of I was pumped.
So this is the 17th Studio Ghibli film, released in 2011 after Arrietty and before Miyazaki’s final film as director, The Wind Rises. Aaaand that’s about as much as I know about it. I’m going into this one completely cold.
I mean, c’mon. What else do I need to know? It’s a Studio Ghibli film directed by Miyazaki. The only question is; Great Movie or the Greatest Movie? Let’s take a look.
So, dateline: Yokohoma 1963. We meet our heroine Umi, a 16 year old Japanese girl who lives in her grandmother’s boarding house which is, indeed, Up on Poppy Hill. You shoot straight with me, movie. I like that. Umi’s mother is studying in America and her father is “gone” and she says in the opening narration and so she and her sister Sora and little brother Riku…
Sora and Riku?
Okay, there’s obviously some kind of significance to those two names in Japanese culture that I’m just not getting. Something to do with ancestors and…shrines, probably. Whatever, as the movie begins Umi is going about her morning routine, raising flags in the garden which can be seen by the passing ships, and getting breakfast ready for the boarders in her grandmother’s house. As she works, Umi’s narrates and tells us that all of Japan is really psyched to be hosting the Olympics next year and almost everyone’s on a big modernity kick but that some aren’t ready to let go of the past and sometimes “the past isn’t ready to let go of us” and okay, sure, just come out there with the main theme of the movie right up front. That’s fine. Saves us some time.
So Umi dishes up breakfast and the guests come and eat it and…argue about how much soy sauce to use and…
Okay. No, no. It’s fine. This is just…it’s atmospheric. It’s just setting up Umi’s boring workaday existence before all the dragons and wonderment show up. It’s a slow-burner, that’s all. Nothing to be worried about. I’ll just watch five more minutes of this breakfast scene to see where they go with this.
I don’t find this riveting. But it’s Miyazaki. So clearly there’s something wrong with me.
Ah. They finish their breakfast and Umi and her siblings go to school. Don’t know what I was expecting really. Alright, so Sora shows Umi a poem that was published in the school newspaper that seems to be about her and the weird flag-raising thing that she does every morning and everyone’s all “ooooooooooooooohhh”. Later at lunch Sora sits down with Umi…oh. Sorry. My mistake. That isn’t Sora at all. Apparently this is Umi’s best friend Nobuko, not her sister Sora.
Sorry, I have no idea how I could have confused them. Although…is it just me or are these character designs kinda…samey?
“Hey Zeke, ya hear we got a mention on tvtropes?”
“Makes it all worthwhile, don’t it?”
I know! I know! It’s Miyazaki. Clearly I’m just mentally deranged. Okay so, the girls have a scintillating conversation about lunch and then OH MY GOD SOMETHING’S HAPPENING!
Unfurling banners! Now we’re talking!
Alright, so these dweebs are a bunch of dweebs called the Anti-Demolition League, a group of student societies who’ve banded together to save their clubhouse, a roach-infested Addams Family manor-esque place called the Latin Quarter. Yeah, I don’t know why they call it the Latin Quarter either. Surely one building isn’t enough to make a “quarter”? That’s an “eighth”, at best. So one of the boys, Shun, then leaps off the roof into the pond below to make his point that the building shouldn’t be demolished by the school.
This is probably a good time to remind you that this movie is set in the sixties and student protests were very much in. In fact, Shun throwing himself off the roof is not even close to being the craziest protest I’ve ever heard of. My parents knew this guy who climbed the broadcast tower of RTÉ to protest the lack of Irish language programming.
“Sir, please come down.”
“Every second you stay up there you are losing millions of sperm.”
“Please fetch me a ladder.”
So Shun cannonballs into the pond and Umi goes to pull him out and when he takes her hand the whole school just explodes in “ooooooooooohhhhh” and my God I do not miss secondary school at all. Not. One. Little. Bit. Embarassed, Umi heads home and has a conversation in the kitchen with one of the boarders about how she got some cheap mackerel in the marketplace. The Umi, has a conversation with her grandmother about how she’s been keeping the books for the boarding house and okay, that’s it! That is it! Stop! Stop the movie! Stop everything!
What is going on here? What is this?! I’m watching a Studio Ghibli movie directed by Hayao Miyazaki and I have not been transported into a wonderland of cartoon enchantment. No sir, I have not. I am neither thrilled, humbled, nor wondrous. I am, at best, bored, frustrated and a little sweaty. Am I being trolled? Did I suffer a head injury that causes me to experience everything at one tenth normal speed? Did I put the wrong disk in the DVD player? Let me check the box again.
Wait a minute. Enhance 15 to 23.
Okay, so, that explains that. This movie was not actually directed by Hayao Miyazaki but by his son, Goro. Goro’s only movie prior to this was Tales From Earthsea which I haven’t seen but is usually described as “the bad studio Ghibli film”, presumably by people who haven’t seen From Up on Poppy Hill. And look, I don’t want to dump on the guy. Trying to live up to a legacy like Hayao’s cannot be fun at all. From what I read, Goro only reluctantly got into directing. He actually studied to be a landscaper after he found some of his father’s drawings as a child and decided “Yep. Not gonna be able to top that. Why bother?” And there’s absolutely no shame in that. Honestly, I almost think he’d have been better off devoting his time and energy to being the best damn landscapering dude he could be instead of working in a field where he could be absolutely fantastic and still be the “less good” Miyazaki. I almost think that, but I don’t. Because despite how much I dislike this film there is definitely some talent on display here and he might just become a top drawer animation director given time. And also because there is some serious Seti-Ramses stuff going on between Hayao and Goro and when they finally make the movie about the two of them it’s going to be amazing.
Alright, so the next day…Sora? Let me check my chart.
Okay, so. Hair clips and not a beloved male Italian American comic actor. So Sora. Sora shows Umi a picture of Shun leaping off the roof that she bought for thirty yen which results in an admittedly hilarious “Wow. That was a…waste of money” from Umi. Shun has become a celebrity on campus and now all the girls are crazy about him. Ladies. Please explain this to me. I don’t get it. I just don’t.
“I jumped in a lake, will you have sex with me?”
“Hell yeah I’m gonna have sex with you! You jumped in a lake!”
Sora wants to get Shun’s autograph and so she asks Umi to go with her to the Latin Quarter. Once inside they find that the Latin Quarter is a rambling wreck of a place basically being held upright by its own filth. They ask for directions to the school newspaper’s office and are told to “Listen for the sounds of smug portentousness.”
Huh. I didn’t know Shun wrote for Salon. They head upstairs and meet the various weirdoes of the philosophy club, the chemistry club and the drama club. Pffh. Drama club. What a bunch of nerds.
“Please. You CRIED when you had to leave Dramsoc.”
“My soul died that day.”
So Umi and Sora meet Shun and his assistant editor Mizanuma. Shun signs Sora’s photo and Umi notices that his whole hand has been bandaged. She asks him about it and he says that he didn’t hurt his hand from the fall, but cut himself shaving.
“I have to shave my hands. Because I’m so manly.”
Umi gets roped into helping out at the paper and Umi and Shun just spend a few minutes wordlessly working together. There are stencils.
Here, the action of the film builds to a thrilling climax.
Realising the time, Umi runs home to make dinner. She starts on the rice and vegetables but then discovers THAT THERE’S NO PORK! CRISIS!!!!!
Okay look. I know what you’re thinking. “Oh, poor Mouse. Can’t even concentrate on a movie if there’s not a transformer exploding every five seconds. It’s art, Mouse. It’s restrained film-making, Mouse. It’s speaking the language of subtlty, a language you don’t understand (and also Japanese), Mouse.” Hey, I don’t mind slow films. I don’t mind movies that take their time. But, and I’m just putting this out there, there is a difference between a movie that takes its time, and a movie that wastes yours. This is the latter. There is just so much pointless filler and conversations about food that go nowhere and so precious little about the actual characters. A fun game to play…well, a game to play with this movie: Try and see how long it takes for a character to speak a line of dialogue that’s not purely informational “I used up all the pork making lunch” and actually performs an action (comforting, teasing, threatening, seducing, cajoleing, charming etc etc).
Contrast with Waiting for Godot. In terms of plot, it’s a play where nothing happens. Twice. But it’s full of incident because the characters are constantly pushing each other in different directions and into different emotional states.
“Will we go?”
“We’re waiting for plot.”
So Umi meets Shun on his bicycle on her way to buy some pork and he ends up giving her a lift to the market. I’m gonna sound like I’m contradicting myself here…but I actually really like this scene. There’s a lovely atmosphere and the score really helps set the mood. I wouldn’t mind scenes like this if there was a little more dramatic heft to the rest of the movie. Anyway, Umi’s clearly starting to develop a crush on Shun and goes home to make dinner.
So there’s two main storylines to From Up on Poppy Hill. The first is how Umi, Shun and the other students try to convince the school not to demolish the Latin Quarter, the second is the burgeoning love between Umi and Shun. At first things seem to be going great until Umi shows Shun around her house and he sees a picture of her father with two other naval officers. She says that his ship went down when it was bombed during the Korean War and nope. Not buying it. Ship goes down in the Pacific during the fifties? That was no mine. In fact, let’s ask one of the survivors.
“What did you see, old man?”
Umi’s ritual of raising the flags is her way of sending a message to her father to come home (and should probably raise some flags for Shun, if you catch my drift). Shun then goes home and opens a drawer to reveal that he has the exact same photograph (oh no). Shun asks his father about this because it turns out that he’s adopted (here we go) and that he’s always been told that the guy in the photograph is his father (oy vey) and yeah, Shun has to tell Umi that they’re actually brother and sister oh God in heaven…
This again? Again? This again, again?
Alright, first of all, let me make it clear that I’m not judging Umi or Shun. It’s a tragic situation, and actually a much more common one than you might think (thanks a lot, genetic sexual attraction
). And it’s not like the movie is sensationalising it (I defy you to find anything in this movie that’s the least sensational) or that it’s implying Umi should just get over it and bang her brother. It’s very clear that once she learns that they’re related, Umi puts the kibosh on the relationship even though she still has feelings for Shun.
My question is more…why, Japan? Why does every second manga, or animé, or computer game I play I feel like it has some variation on this trope? Games especially? It’s always “I know you’re my sister but it turns out I’m adopted” or “Oh I have feelings for you but we can’t act on them because you’re my brother oh wait God rewrote reality so now we’re not related any more help me get this bra off…”
I mean, why!? What is it about this theme that you need to keep going back to it over and over and over and over like a monkey with a miniature symbol that wants to bang it’s sister?
“I can explain, Mouse.”
“No, actually. I’m regular, vanilla Asia from this universe..”
“Oh. Funny I’ve never seen you before.”
“I’ve been travelling. So, you want to know why so much of Japanese media depicts attraction between siblings, either adopted or blood related?”
“Well, there are many cultural factors stemming from Japanese folklore and the stresses arising from a society that is at once fascinated by deviations from sexual norms while still being extremely conservative but mostly it comes down to the fact that their sisters are really, really, really hot.””
“Japanese people want to bang their sisters…because they’re hot?”
“Yes. Why? Don’t you want to bang your sisters?”
“Oh. Are they unattractive?”
Okay. Well. We won’t be seeing him again.
So, Umi and Shun channel all their weird, frustrated energy into saving the Latin Quarter and finally manage to get enough support from the students to completely renovate their beloved deathtrap. But the school board is still dead-set on tearing down their clubhouse so you know what that means!
Or, because this movie has no sense of fun, Shun, Umi and Mizunama travel to Tokyo to talk to Tokumaru (I just wrote seven T-words in a row and I wasn’t even trying). Tokumaru is the chairman of the school board and they’re hoping they can convince him to cancel the demolition. As they arrive in Tokyo, the city is preparing to host the Olympic Games.
Translation: “We have gone 5 DAYS without a psychic child destroying the city.”
We now get some looooooong scenes of travelling by train to Tokyo, booking a meeting, waiting in the waiting room (seriously).
You and me both, buddy.
Tokumaru finally sees them and after hearing their story agrees to come to Yokohoma to see the Latin Quarter for himself. Returning home, Umi finds her mother Ryoko has returned from America. Umi asks her mother about that brother she never told her about and Ryoko explains that it’s all a big misunderstanding. See, Shun was actually the son of the second man in the photograph who was killed in the tail-end of the Second World War. Umi’s dad adopted Shun but when they couldn’t look after both Umi and Shun they ended up giving him to Shun’s adopted father and mother who’d just lost their own baby.
TLDR: They’re not related.
I find this really unsatisfying because the central conflict of the movie is resolved really without any effort on the part of our protagonists. They thought something was wrong. Turns out it wasn’t. Conflict resolved. Lame.
Anyway, Tokumaru arrives and inspects the Latin Quarter and is so impressed by all their hard work that he announces that the school won’t tear it down after all (hooray if I cared). Then Shun gets a call from his father to tell him that there’s a ship in the harbour whose captain is…the third man.
The third man in the photo is a guy called Yoshio and he knew both Umi and Shun’s biological fathers. They race down to the docks to catch the ship before it goes and board to talk to him. He tells them that he served with their fathers in the navy (we knew that) that they aren’t related (we knew that) and that their fathers would be very proud of both of them (d’aaaaaaw don’t care).
And that’s it. That’s our big climax.
You know what, much as I dislike this film this film I can’t put all the blame at Goro’s feet. I mean, the direction borders on the somnambulant but that’s only part of the problem. The script just ain’t that good. It’s just weak. What two-bit hack wrote this thing?
ARE YOU KIDDING ME?!
That’s it people. Up is down. Black is white. Cats are onions. Chaos reigns. Hayoa Miyazaki wrote a bad movie. I can’t imagine what this did to his reputation. I mean, when this thing came out the critics must have eaten it alive…
83%?! ARE YOU ALL HIGH!?!?!
Stiff motion (for Ghibli), interchangeable character designs (for Ghibli), and just kind of bland looking (for Ghibli). So, still gorgeous by any objective measure.
Yeah, I’m still not sure they’re not related. They look the same, they act the same and they deliver their lines in the same bored monotone. A passionate love for the ages this ain’t.
Modernity? Lack of respect for the past? Pesky anti-incest laws?
Supporting Characters: 04/20
It took my second viewing to realise that one character was actually two different people. Not a good sign.
Satoshi Takebe contributes a nice, peppy, sixties infused score.
FINAL SCORE: 46%
Next Update: 25 June 2015
NEXT TIME: Animé month continues as Satoshi Kon makes us an offer we can’t refuse. Tokyo Godfathers is next.