Such is the greatness of Ghibli’s backlog that each new release cannot hope to escape comparison. It has now been a full decade since the last truly great movie from the studio (Spirited Away (2001)) and nine years since the last purely enjoyable one (The Cat Returns (2002)). All movies since had their moments, but their uneven quality whether it was a full-fledged fantasy like Howl’s Moving Castle (2004) or more sedate affairs like last year’s The Secret World of Arrietty (2010) did not make it easy for Ghibli’s devoted following to love them unreservedly. Each Ghibli film used to be full of memorable moments you could savour, watch again and swoon to every time. Those moments are becoming rarer. Miyazaki Hayao’s son, Goro, made his debut with Tales from Earthsea (2006), which wasn’t received very well, prompting some to question whether Ghibli’s future would be secure after Miyazaki Senior’s inevitable final retirement. From Up on Poppy Hill is Goro’s second feature, and while it is an accessible and enjoyable effort, it lacks the fantasy and ambition of the studio’s biggest hits, while more worryingly is also devoid of the kind of detail and nostalgic affection that made Only Yesterday (1991) and Whisper of the Heart (1995) so special.
Set in Yokohama, Japan just before the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, Poppy Hill is the story of Umi, a second-year high school girl who lives and works at a tenant house run by her grandmother. Her father was a sailor who was lost at sea during the Korean War and presumed dead; her mother is studying in the US and thus also an absent figure for Umi. Every morning she raises signal flags out on the garden which overlooks the ocean as a way to remember her lost father, before embarking on a daily routine rigidly structured around school and the chores she must perform at her home. One day she runs into a reckless, dashing senior named Shun, and soon allows her life to open up to the optimism and energy of the teen idealists who occupy Quartier Latin, a dilapidated school clubhouse where the more intellectually-disposed male students have set up various headquarters for their extracurricular activities. Umi helps out Shun with his newspaper printing, and ends up fighting alongside him and the occupants of the clubhouse to save Quartier Latin against the forces of change which holds sway at the high school. Meanwhile, unforeseen revelations about their families’ past force Umi and Shun, who are increasingly drawn to each other, to reconsider their feelings.
The real-world setting and small-scale drama of Poppy Hill place the film in that category of the more contemplative and tranquil Ghibli animation alongside Only Yesterday and Whisper, but it has no hope of joining the two in the pantheon of the studio’s most beloved hits. Poppy Hill does not display enough conviction in its narrative and presentation to push a grounded, thoughtful story all the way. Only Yesterday and Whispers showed that Ghibli movies don’t need to have monstrous feline buses and hyper-aging teen girls on mobile fortresses to charm. What those two movies did was to depict the everyday routine and the smallest trivial action with the same affection and wonder, not to mention painstaking detail, as it did flying dragons and wolf-gods; Ghibli treated things like sharpening a pencil or coming home after school like they were the most special things in the world, deserving of care and skill and attention – which, in a way, they really are. Only Yesterday was about a woman reminiscing about her childhood and nought else (no skeletons in the closet, no former flames with last-minute confessions, no adolescent traumas), while Whispers was a two-hour movie about a school girl agonizing, Hamlet-like, over whether to write a story about a tuxedo’d cat. But you fall in love with these films because they’re special. They’re special because normally films don’t ever lavish such attention to the unremarkable lives of ordinary people without either resorting to violence, voyeurism or melodrama; they resonate with their audience because they endeavoured to draw fantasy not from the outlandish but from the mundane, the normal, the everyday, and they do not do so exploitatively. They stand apart from the role-playing wish-fulfillment of countless animes and the likes of Harry Potter and The Matrix and suggest in their inimitable, tender way that we should treasure the lives we lead now, that they deserve the same kind of longing and wonder, and hint at worthwhile fulfillment within real means.
Another characteristic that all great Ghibli movies had was the daring they displayed, the risks they took. Ghibli has a reputation for comforting fantasy and childlike wonderment, but look closely and their movies’ themes, design and characters start to reveal a certain edge and extremeness. The aforementioned ‘bus’ in My Neighbour Totoro (1988) is a breathtakingly unsoftened creation, with aggressive reptilian eyes and an elongated body full of empty spaces that make for windows; adult audiences recoil at the sight of it, yet children everywhere always find it delightful. The ‘bus’ is a good Ghibli creature: it speaks for the differing appreciation and expectations of children and grown-ups, that the more innocent young’uns, unspoiled by cynicism and horrors of life, accept the ‘bus’ for what it is – a fluffy, oversized Cheshire cat that you can ride – the same way Satsuki and Mei in Totoro board it without hesitation. Similarly, Porco Rosso (1992) dallied with body horror in the shape of a downbeat pilot who suffers unending purgatory by being forced to live as a man-pig hybrid, while Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989) more subtly and powerfully showed how a teenage witch (SPOILERS) lost her ability to fly and to converse with her cat Jiji as she grew older and began to find her place in adult society. Spirited Away begins with the parents of the main character being turned into swine in a horrific scene, and barely lets up with a succession of disturbing deities and subtexts which stop just short of outright horror, but retain a chilling effect of alienation and abandonment.
Sadly, there’s neither the transcendental detail and affection, nor the daring ambition in Poppy Hill. Thematically it’s cookie-cutter safe, despite the fact that the post-war Japan about to begin a miraculous industrial rise would seem to be a rare and ripe backdrop for a more tellingly contextual study of a time of great change in Japanese society and the place in it for the young people and their environment that are drawn so handsomely in the film. There’s great energy in Miyazaki’s depiction of the students struggling to save the clubhouse due for demolition for a more modern building, and the period detail of rural Yokohama as well as (more briefly) Tokyo in the throes of transformation is nicely realized and easily the best thing about the film. However, Miyazaki stops well short of dealing with the teen would-be activists and what they really represent: a poignant reminder of a lost generation of young Japanese idealists who ended up conforming to the overwhelming preponderance of materialism and political stagnation which came to define the rise of a new Japan in the Seventies and Eighties, and who would never again manage to bring to bear the sort of vigilant activism displayed in Poppy Hill.
Its breezy style is more reminiscent of The Cat Returns, but while that film was a concentrated distillation of the usual flight of fancy the studio specialized in and was aimed to literally take the audience on a short, thrilling ride, Poppy Hill would have benefitted from a more patient and intricate approach. There’s certainly enjoyable set-pieces, like the girls cleaning up the dungeon-like school clubhouse which hitherto had been the exclusive domain of boys, or Umi going about her daily routine of grocery shopping and cooking for the tenants at her house, but Miyazaki doesn’t seem to have the confidence or the patience to linger on each scene, to let us observe what sort of person Umi is, or what implications the changes her world is going through have on her; we just watch her get into one brief situation after another, few of which are compelling in plot or presentation, and then the film is over. There is also an attempt to insert overt narrative drive in the form of flimsy melodrama, which is a pity because past Ghibli dramas didn’t need to resort to such mechanism in order to involve the audience. Poppy Hill is certainly a diverting fare, endearing in places and easy to like, but it is in no way a return to form for the studio, and small improvement for the would-be pretender to Miyazaki Senior’s throne.