While the latest films of relatively young directors like Mamoru Hosoda and Makoto Shinkai feature the supernatural in all its intimate and archetypal forms, Studio Ghibli, in an almost been-there-done-that gesture has instead turned its gaze elsewhere, this time into the imperfect past as opposed to the fantastical present. Based on a girls’ manga illustrated by Chizuru Takahashi and written by Tetsurou Sayama and serialised in 1980, From Up on Poppy Hill is an unabashedly old-fashioned feel-good straight out of the Golden Oldies, complete with simple, wholesome morals and an even more wholesome and entirely toe-tapping, smile-inducing soundtrack.
It’s Yokohama in the early 1960s. Japan will be hosting the Olympics, the Korean War is not long over and Japanese involvement as a forward base of operations for US and UN actions in support of South Korea has visited tragedy upon her people in the way that any war does. Umi Matsuzaki, eldest in her family, is running a boarding house on a hill above Yokohama Bay in order to help make ends meet while her mother studies abroad, and every day before school she runs signal flags up the flagpole outside her house in memory of her father who died when a mine stuck his military supply ship.
That there are no monsters, no spirits, no other worlds or anything that Ghibli has been known for in the last decade honestly comes as a little bit of a surprise. The studio’s last “straight” film in fact was My Neighbors the Yamadas in 1999 and even that might not count considering its departure from traditional animation, but the conspicuous absence of the supernatural doesn’t hurt Poppy Hill at all. This is the kind of gentle and nostalgic story that can’t help but be every bit as charming, touching and wonderful as any of the studio’s other more adventurous undertakings and Miyazaki’s subtle genius as scriptwriter renders almost instantly a cast of characters both engaging and believable, seemingly in effortless defiance of any concerns you might have about whether such a quaint tale can be in any way relevant to today’s audience. Miyazaki Goro’s directorial efforts bring a subtle breath of wistfulness, and the lush signature Ghibli backdrops bring a less grand, more homey overtone to the much more personal drama that unfolds.
To talk about, it almost borders on a little dull. Umi, self-sufficient if a little reclusive, suddenly starts to notice fellow student Shun Kasama after he pulls a daring publicity stunt to help raise awareness about the planned demolition of the school’s clubhouse to make way for a more modern Olympics-inspired building. He’s successful in that it turns him into a bit of a school heartthrob, and when Umi’s younger sister insists she accompany her to get Shun’s autograph, Umi finds herself roped in to helping out on the school paper and is soon falling in what amounts to first love with the charming and charismatic hero, who, it should be noted, likes her back. Shun’s mission to save the clubhouse become’s Umi’s as the two grow closer together in that way that only the innocent (particularly the innocent in an anime) can. However, all is not hearts and flowers for our sweet young couple, because when Shun sees a photograph of Umi’s father the shared past that they never even knew about suddenly has the power to affect their present.
That Poppy Hill is hardly dull is the magic of Studio Ghibli at work. From the hilariously mysterious boyland of the club house (a little reminiscent of the bathhouse in Spirited Away to start with) and the militaristic efforts to clean the place up, to the serious business of fathers and family secrets and lives lost to war – along with every simple, straightforward sentiment between – Poppy Hill is somehow refreshing, sweet. There are no brutal transformations or cathartic realisations here. There’s just life, going on as it does, whether people are there or gone, whether things are as you thought they were or not. It’s not in fact some “cheap melodrama” as Shun puts it when revealing the suspected connections between him and Umi; no, not cheap at all, but possibly all the more valuable because these days, short of the classics on TV on a Sunday afternoon, this kind of simple, heart-warming story is usually a thing of the past. Trust Ghibli to bring it back.