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From up on Poppy Hill

Andrew Osmond on the newest UK release for Ghibli

From Up on Poppy Hill, released in British cinemas today, is a Ghibli father-and-son affair. The story was co-scripted by the esteemed Hayao Miyazaki, based on a girls’ manga he analysed 22 years ago, in an article called “My Shojo Manga Experience.” It’s directed by his son Goro, and is rather different from what either Miyazaki has made before. Poppy Hill is a period drama, set in a Japan a half-century past. According to an L.A. Times article, Goro thinks his father used Poppy Hill as an experiment for his own next film; more on that later.

Poppy Hill is set in 1963, in a Japan between the devastation of war and the hope of a new start for the country. It’s set just before the 1964 Tokyo Olympics – you see the Olympic logo throughout the film – which became a symbol of national rebirth in Japan. The same symbolism is used more ironically in Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira, where a new universe is born in an Olympic stadium. Poppy Hill has familiar anime subjects – the strength and spirit of the young, lovers faced with an impossible barrier. It also revolves round a lost father; we’ve discussed what that might mean elsewhere. It’s being shown dubbed and subbed; the dub is good-to-excellent, with a great turn from Ron Howard (that Ron Howard!) as an outsized philosophy geek.

From up on Poppy Hill

But here’s the surprise; Poppy Hill has no fantasy. There are no flying castles, no wizards, Totoro or fish girls. Not even a talking cat. This is Ghibli, if not without magic, then without supernatural magic. Anyone looking for a Miyazaki-style epic fantasy is out of luck, though the Ghibli-animated Ni no Kuni is consolation for gamers.

Readers of this blog will find a non-fantasy Ghibli film less of a shock than general audiences, especially if you’ve seen ‘films like Whisper of the Heart, Only Yesterday and Ocean Waves, all magic-less. All three are shown over the next week on Film4, starting with Ocean Waves today at 11 a.m. However, Only Yesterday and Ocean Waves are still awaiting a home release in America, which suggests someone is worried they’d be a hard sell to Westerners.

Yet the cinema release of the non-fantasy Poppy Hill hints that mainstream attitudes are changing. In recent years, we’ve had excellent real-world dramas in animation: Persepolis from France, the Edinburgh-made The Illusionist, Spain’s Chico and Rita. Poppy Hill has points in common with all three, especially The Illusionist. Both express a love of the past, a celebration of cities in bygone decades, and a defence of old, ‘outmoded’ culture being pushed aside by the new.

Poppy Hill is set in Yokohama, a port city near Tokyo. The main character is Umi, an industrious, serious-minded girl. She lives in her grandmother’s hilltop house with her younger siblings and the house staff, while her mother’s abroad. Each morning, Umi raises flags to greet the ships in the bay below. She’s really doing it in memory of her sailor dad, who died in the Korean war (1950-3), when she was little.

At school, she has a farcical encounter with Shun, a boy involved in a campaign to save their school’s crumbling clubhouse. This is one of Ghibli’s mazelike, multi-storeyed edifices, a living, working community of the kind Miyazaki loves. It’s especially reminiscent of Tokyo’s real Ghibli museum, strewn with papers and bric-a-brac. The boys have turned it into a treehouse-cum-den of different clubs – philosophers, astronomers, archaeologists and so on – and they’re not ready to let it go.

From up on Poppy Hill

Despite their bumpy start, Umi realises she likes Shun (it’s strongly hinted he has liked her for much longer). Shun’s zeal inspires Umi to join the clubhouse campaign, and they set about renovating the building, helped by a troupe of mop-wielding schoolgirls. And then… there are complications, involving the turbulent postwar past. The youngsters find themselves in the position of trying to save history (the clubhouse), even while they’re frustrated by it. They must deal with inner conflicts, and act in public as adults, in order to be heard by an establishment that sees them as kids.

This theme, coupled with the 1960s setting, has a special resonance in Japan. At that time, the relationship between Japan and the nation that beat it, America, was still being thrashed out. Many young Japanese didn’t like the way this was going. In the spring of 1960, there were massive demonstrations against a Security Pact between Japan and America. That May, student riots led to hundreds of injuries, and the death of a female student.

According to the translated Starting Point, a collection of Hayao Miyazaki’s writings, Miyazaki was a bystander and witness to these demos, but didn’t take part. He did march in demos a few years later, calling for animators’ rights at the Toei studio, but the greater battle had passed him by. This has an interesting echo in Poppy Hill. In one scene, an amazed Umi witnesses a brawling debate between the male students, full of pushing and shoving. We see Umi awed by Shun’s passion before the mob. It’s a comic, cartoony scene, but it suggests something far weightier.

The film critic Aaron Gerow accused Poppy Hill of sterilising Japan’s history by omitting any reference to America, whose presence in Yokohama was overbearing in 1963. On the other hand, Ghibli films usually prefer to allegorise their politics: the ‘beast fable’ political activism in Pom Poko, or the images of national occupation in Nausicaa.

As for Poppy Hill, consider the very catchy period song that plays twice in the film, during pivotal moments for Umi and Shun. You can hear the song here, with translated lyrics. A huge international hit, it’s called “Ue no Mita” in Japanese, but is known as “Sukiyaki” in the West. The Japanese performer was Kyu Sakamoto; the song was covered by the likes of Kenny Ball and His Jazzmen and A Taste of Honey. Intriguingly, the original writer, Rokusuke Ei, was himself a political protester. Moreover, the song was inspired by his frustrations at the failed protests against the Japan-American Security Treaty.

A hidden message in Poppy Hill? Well, maybe. To most people, “Sukiyaki” just plays as a love song, and a very nostalgic one. Ghibli has form in playing the nostalgia card shamelessly, in Totoro, Spirited Away or Only Yesterday. Beyond Ghibli, the enormously popular Always; Sunset on Third Street is a live-action Japanese film trilogy about postwar Tokyo. Not forgetting the splendid period TV anime Kids on the Slope, which viewers may find more cinematic than Poppy Hill.

And then there’s Kaze Tachinu. By coincidence, Ghibli’s film comes out in Britain two weeks after this new Ghibli film, directed by Hayao Miyazaki, in Japan. Kaze Tachinu (The Wind is Rising) is another non-fantasy history drama, based on a true story. The trailer looks very cinematic, in David Lean vein. The voice at the start belongs to Hideaki Anno, creator of Evangelion.

Kaze Tachinu covers decades of Japanese history; the trailer shows the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake. The film is controversial because of its protagonist, Jiro Horikoshi. A real person, he made fighter planes that went on to cause carnage through Asia and at Pearl Harbour. Miyazaki argues the man should be separated from the consequences of his work. Quoted in the Wall Street Journal, Miyazaki said, “(Horikoshi) made high-tech destroyers, but really all he desired was to make exquisite planes.”

And yet Miyazaki, beloved as a creator of exquisite art, has now turned political pundit! In recent days, he’s made outspoken, deeply controversial comments about inflammatory topics, including Japan’s present-day constitution and its past war-crimes. He’s especially scathing about politicians’ own knowledge of the past. “I am taken aback by the lack of knowledge among government and political party leaders on historical facts.”

Watching Poppy Hill in the light of these headlines, one wonders. Is Miyazaki tired of playing the part of Umi, the girl standing awed before an alpha-male orator? Is he instead playing Shun, who leaps heroically to centre-stage? If so, there’s a problem – Miyazaki is no teenage student! He’s a septuagenarian, whom Japanese critics can call a rougai, a foolish oldster who’s outstayed his time. Except there are few Japanese people of any age as famous as Miyazaki – and perhaps none with his pop-culture presence among young and old.

Poppy Hill insists the past will not be forgotten. In Miyazaki’s animation, oldsters magically shrug off the years. Can he perform the same trick on himself with his art?

From Up on Poppy Hill is out today in selected UK cinemas.

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