“Umi and Shun’s romance uncovers questions about their parentage while they attempt to save a clubhouse from renovations for the Olympics.”
Directed By: Goro Miyazaki Rated: PG, 91 min
Hayao Miyazaki has both the imaginative industry to engineer vast new landscapes and an attention to detail as fine and gentle as the hairs of a paintbrush. I think Miyazaki’s power originates from this, a fierce but gentle wonder – strong enough to suspend a castle from the sky of the mind, or gentle enough to paint the enameled flowers on the side of a teacup. He can make a world in which magic fire sprouts like dandelions from the ground, where castles walk and demons lounge in ponds of scented water, and yet where bread still needs to be cut, and shoes need to be tied, where sparks in the smoke make you squint, and dust rises from hoofbeats. Miyazaki knows that the fireworks of magic become more real to us when we can feel and smell and taste the grit of gunpowder on our fingertips.
It’s unfair to expect from Hayao’s son what he himself, has become known for. Nonetheless, I have been awaiting From Up On Poppy Hill for a long time, ever since Cinekatz did a feature on Ghibli and Miyazaki. I later wondered whether Ghibli would push into a new golden era. This was after I played their game, Ni No Kuni:Wrath of the White Witch, which far exceeded my expectations as a game or a film. I was surprised, then, to find how lukewarm I was to From Up On Poppy Hill, directed by Hayao’s son, Goro. If a normal Ghibli movie feels like a tea party given on the roof of a floating castle, then this movie was a lukewarm cup of tea, pleasant and weak.
Every morning, Umi Matsuzaki raises the signal flags that will bring her father home from the sea. She lives in a boarding house, with her grandmother, her siblings, and several boarders. Her mother, a professor, spends her sabbatical overseas in the States. Her father is dead. Umi knows this but a compulsion that goes beyond loyalty brings her outside each morning to raise his flags. She waits for her father, she waits for something new to wait for. She doesn’t know, that Shun, a journalism student, sees her flags each morning and signals back from his father’s tugboat. She cannot see him over her garden wall.
At a demonstration to save a ramshackle warren of student organizations called the Quartier Latin from renovations for the 1964 Olympics, Umi meets Shun and they form a friendship that gradually becomes a romance. Neither are looking for love. As the two work to save the Quartier Latin, they discover however, a common past that raises disturbing questions about their parentage and the nature of their relationship.
One statement can pretty well sum up my feelings about From Up On Poppy Hill: I liked this film. This statement feels strange to me, because even the lesser Ghibli films produce a strong longing in me for magic and wonder. I didn’t feel much, watching this movie. The story unfolds at the leisurely pace of a bicycle ride through a warm, if unremarkable town. A series of choices and characters pass in a river of muted greens and beiges. I feel comfortable with everyone, like I know them, and I don’t have to check the price of fish today because it will be the same as it was yesterday.
A few moments of interest throw the characters into clear relief, at times, like figures beneath a streetlamp on a lane softened by willows. Shun and Umi make a decision on a train that surprised me so much I had to rewatch the scene. The second time around, I was still suspicious of the subtitles until I checked the plot on Wikipedia. The Quartier Latin at times recalls the baroque grandeur of Ghibli worlds: the opulence of the spirit bathhouse, the ramshackle magic of Howl’s Castle. However, aside from one deeply uncomfortable moment of conversation, Shun and Umi don’t do much that surprises us and next to other locations, the Quartier Latin looks tired. Unlike the bathhouse, deeply where deep pools of mystery lie, the walking castle, which whirrs and hums with the energies of imaginary fires, or the hills of broken trees in Mononoke’s world, wrapped in a prehistoric mist, the Quarier Latin sits under a firm layer of dust and the forgetful warmth of sunlight. For most of the time, I feel like I’m listening to a story told by an elderly neighbor about a child. At times I’m interested, at others, I find myself thinking of something distant, something for later in the afternoon. Some fire, present in other movies by Ghibli, has gone out and we’re warming our hands in the ashes.
I have a theory about two causes that left From Up On Poppy Hill feeling so enervated. The first is that Goro intended to move away and outside of his father’s elements to make this film. Yet he collaborated with his father. Every creator has a cupboard of elements by which he makes his magic: some do it by wind, others by light through dust. Some paint with blood and others with words. Hayao Miyazaki bodies forth his worlds with ember eyed smoke and steam rising from loaves of bread, from the clink of bronze, and the white noise of fire. Every Miyazaki film contains at least one spot, or sometimes an ocean of magic. His characters have an unshakable faith in the mundane fact of the strangeness of things. This isn’t naive magic – no, Miyazaki simply believes in a universe that slips the net of reason. He refuses to believe a confined list of forces move it, or at least proposes a catalogue of more visceral forces. I think Goro Miyazaki gave up the defining feature of his father’s filmography when he stepped into a historical world with no magic. He doesn’t want to follow his father’s path. The problem is, no other force came to replace his father’s magic. A strange absence wanders the film. Characters have pale desires.
I attribute the second cause of the lukewarm nature of the film to the relationship between the Miyazaki’s themselves. From Up On Poppy Hill attracted a lot of attention because it was to be the first collaboration between the old master, Miyazaki himself, and Goro his son. Goro and Miyazaki have a strained relationship, at best. Of his Goro’s other films, Miyazaki reportedly stated that no son of his made movies like that. Now everyone watches Goro, measuring, studying, wondering if he can cast a shadow that will outstretch his father’s. I think its telling that I have trouble reviewing Goro’s movie without referencing his father’s films. I imagine having Miyazaki for a father would be like having a magical castle for a parent when you’re just a normal boy.
Within the movie, Shun struggles with the identity of his own father, whether its the dour man who smells of tar that drinks in his living room each night, or a mythical man in a photo. The movie in some sense is about the fathers who are absent. Questions of parentage give rise to pain. But a strange lack of presence characterizes the people of the town, who feel muted next to other creations by Ghibli. They seem afraid to do anything too drastic. The tired Quartier Latin sits comfortably beneath its dust and no one wants to know exactly what knowledges hides away in all those boxes. They examine the mysteries of the “Quartier Latin,” and, satisfied, pat the boxes then wipe their hands of the dust. In the corners of the film, a strange absence lingers – the absence of a father – and between the two main characters a disturbing question arises as their love for each other blooms. The director and his father seem all too aware of these questions. I wonder if the absence we feel in this film might come from their caution, a father and a son, afraid to touch upon a relationship that will scald, and so, left alone, it cools.
The Bottom Line: From Up On Poppy Hill is a wonderfully beautiful but mild experience that lacks the true magic of a Ghibli film.
My Score: 6.0