Tsunderin: At long last we come to the end of our very, very long month. Why, it seems like only a year ago we started reviewing these movies. Ah, how time flies.
Today, we’re taking a look at Goro Miyazaki’s second directorial attempt in the Ghibli roster. With memories of Earthsea ever lingering in our minds—or at least my mind—we were more concerned with the pacing and general narrative of From Up on Poppy Hill than we were with other movies. Of course I wanted Goro to do well, but he had much to improve on. Did those five years between films help him? Let’s find out.
Protagonist Umi Matsuzaki splits her time between going to school and working at her mother’s boarding house in Yokohama. Her mother is currently overseas studying medicine, so all of the duties fall on Umi’s shoulders, leaving her very little time for herself. In the small amount of free time she has in the morning, Umi raises a set of signal flags, reading out to the sailors “I pray for safe travels”. This catches the eye of one of her fellow students, as a poem about her and her flags is published in the school newspaper.
Quickly, she finds out that the poem was written by Shun Kazama, a member of the school’s journalism club. However, her first impression of him is tainted by his antics. He and the journalism club (and most of the boys on campus) are desperately trying to keep the Quartier Latin from being demolished as it’s an old building full of history, as well as it being home to a wide majority of the school’s clubs. In an attempt to get their plight noticed, Shun jumps off one of the school building’s roofs into a small pool of water. The show works, but it also leaves Umi feeling less than impressed with the boy. Umi’s sister, on the other hand, wants Shun’s autograph afterward, so Umi escorts her to get it. While Umi’s sister gets her autograph, Umi is in turn recruited to work for the short-staffed school newspaper since her handwriting is impeccable. Additionally, Umi provides the boys of the Quartier Latin with an invaluable resource to keep their building intact: namely, the girls of the school.
During a party at the boarding house, Umi shows one of her most prized possessions to Shun: a photograph of her father and his two friends right before they were sent to the Korean War. Shun begins acting strangely, and it’s revealed to the audience that back at his own home, Shun has a copy of the same exact photo. Questioning how this is possible, Shun begins asking his father for details—since Shun knows he’s adopted. What Shun finds out is that Umi’s father arrived at their house one night with a baby Shun, unable to raise him. Since Shun’s adoptive parents had just lost a child, they decided to raise Shun as their own. Armed with this knowledge, Shun begins avoiding Umi to end the relationship developing between them. When Umi finally confronts him on his strange actions, he finally tells her the two of them may be related (which is only further proven when both of their names are found under the family registry).
They instead turn their passions to the renovations of the Quartier Latin. However, the school’s principal seems intent on demolishing the building, despite the students’ making sure the building is safe and clean. To combat this, Shun, Umi, and the student body president travel to Toyko to meet with the chairman of the school board. In the greatest stroke of luck known to mankind, they not only get a meeting with the chairman, but also convince him to visit the Quartier Latin to pass his own judgment. Hopped up on good emotions from this meeting, Umi confesses to Shun that her feelings for him have not gone away, and he confesses the same.
Once back at the boarding house, Umi is surprised and elated to find that her mother has returned home. While they’re talking, Umi’s mother reveals that Shun’s father was actually one of Umi’s father’s friends in the photo who died during the war. Additionally, Shun’s mother died in childbirth and his relatives died during the atomic bomb tragedy in Nagasaki. Umi’s parents tried to raise him, but could not as they were expecting Umi as well as supporting Umi’s mother’s medical career. Thus, Shun was given to the Kazamas.
In the final few minutes of the film, the school board chairman decides not to demolish the Quartier Latin. More importantly (to the movie, at least) Shun and Umi meet with the third man in her father’s photo who confirms that the two aren’t related. The romance is saved! Which is apparently the most important thing in this movie…
MadameAce: I think my least favorite part in the movie is the romance, though that tends to be my least favorite part in any movie. However, there are plenty of things that I do like about this relationship. Even after they both confess their feelings for one another, and before discovering they’re not actually related, they don’t act on those feelings and instead continue to function as nothing more than friends. The movie also has other stakes going on instead of just focusing on Shun and Umi’s stunted romance.
On the whole, From Up on Poppy Hill is pretty character-driven, and the clubhouse subplot is merely a means by which to get our two protagonists together. In some ways, this is a shame, since I found the clubhouse subplot far more interesting than the actual plot—namely, Umi’s and Shun’s relationship. That said, the romantic plot isn’t necessarily bad, either; it’s just not my cup of tea. And the movie did need more drama, since the main plot doesn’t really provide all that much if you’re not into romance. The clubhouse is something that has stakes. We see the student body working together to fix it, spending time and effort on the building to make it their own, and that’s why its impending destruction matters—because it matters to the characters.
If Umi and Shun hadn’t come together or found common ground through the clubhouse, I doubt I’d care at all about their relationship. After Shun finally tells Umi that they may be related, nothing in their relationship really changes. They just decide to continue on as friends and forget the romance that was slowly building between them.
It is nice that there are very few, if any, creepy incestuous undertones to the film, but that doesn’t really make for good plot, since Umi and Shun never seem conflicted about potentially being siblings. Additionally, at the movie’s end, when they learn the truth and are not held back by societal standards about incest, nothing happens then either. They both just continue about their lives, and their relationship is right back to where they originally started, with them slowly falling in love.
It’s an uplifting ending, and the relationship means a little more, as together both Umi and Shun have discovered truths about their parents and found some closure. Because of this, the movie is kind of realistic, and I can certainly give it props for that.
Tsunderin: I agree completely with Ace: though I may be a little more inclined to adore romance scenes, I wish that Poppy Hill’s romance had taken a bit more of a backseat to the other plots going on. I think what stopped me from being entirely annoyed at how much focus the romance took from the rest of the film was how Umi’s character was written. And in a way, I think that Umi is an evolution of Miyazaki’s previous leading female from Earthsea, Therru.
Despite the elder Miyazaki’s obvious influence on his son, the two clearly have a different way of writing their female leads. Hayao Miyazaki’s heroines are almost always spunky and willing to get their hands dirty, while still being a little awkward. Anyone can relate to them, and younger girls, especially, will. However, Goro Miyazaki’s heroines—granted, there are only two of them—come off as much more understated and matured. It’s not the exact opposite of his father, but it’s almost like they’re trying to make a smooth progression into the next generation: younger kids who grow up on Hayao Miyazaki’s films can continue their growth with Goro’s.
Back to Umi, though. Having been given such a heavy burden from a young age, Umi has learned to roll with the punches. She doesn’t go off on any fantastical adventures, or learn to use weapons or magic, but her resilience is definitely something to be admired. She shows her tenacity in small scenes where she travels to pick up pork from several miles away to make dinner for the boarding house. She shows her compassion when she shoves her feelings aside first for the sake of her sister, then for the sake of Shun. She is selfless, but also selfish in private moments alone. She longs for something she knows she can never have, but doesn’t allow her life to be consumed by that longing. It’s a pretty mature topic to handle—and seems strangely reminiscent of Only Yesterday—but it’s handled well. It also helps that Shun is a much better character than Arren (anyone is better than Arren).
Although Umi’s arc does come dangerously close to being appropriated by Shun, she does have her own motivations—though if I’m being completely honest, I wish they were more accessible. Sure, Umi searches for her own closure concerning her father and wants just as badly to keep the Quartier Latin up and running, but a lot of the reasons seem to be “well, it’s because it makes Shun happy”. That certainly has something to do with it, and isn’t a problem by itself, but I wish there were a couple more scenes of the student body interacting together, or more scenes of Umi interacting with her sister. As much as this movie is about developing love and fighting for what you believe in, it’s just as much a film about family and how the bonds between your family help support your own passions.
MadameAce: I definitely think that Miyazaki learned from the mistakes of Earthsea, which had entirely too much plot and not enough time to get across the story he wanted to tell. Earthsea was a rushed, sloppy mess, with unrelatable characters and no payoff. From Up on Poppy Hill takes the exact opposite approach. The movie is really slow, and it doesn’t seem to have enough plot. However, that said, it is by far a much more enjoyable film. Earthsea went too fast, yet the movie still dragged because nothing made sense. Poppy Hill takes its time to develop the characters and their relationships, and because we can care and relate to what they’re going through, the slow plot is forgivable.
I certainly wanted and expected more out of this film, and as it stands, it’s not a very memorable story. Although I should mention that at no point does Umi cut her hair after finding her own internal strength or something, so I fully support this movie if only because it doesn’t follow that trend. Unfortunately, at the end of the day, though Poppy Hill is by far an improvement from Earthsea and it is a film that I can watch and enjoy, it’s still not something that I’m particularity glad I watched. It just exists and doesn’t really invoke that many emotions from its viewers. If you want to check it out, that’s fine, and there’s certainly no harm in watching it. But it was also a movie I could have done without.