Starring Masami Nagasawa, Junichi Okada, Keiko Takeshita, Jun Fubuki, Yuriko Ishida, Takashi Naito, Shunsuke Kazama, Nao Omori, Teruyuki Kagawa, Haruka Shiraishi
Directed by Goro Miyazaki
Studio Ghibli has been doing a lot of adaptations. Howl’s Moving Castle, Tales of Earthsea, and Arrietty were all direct novel adaptations, while Ponyo was loosely based on Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid. From Up On Poppy Hill marks their fifth adaptation in a row. Ghibli was always the go-to source for fantastic, original anime films. Except they haven’t made one in over a decade now.
This may seem like a minor point, but to me it’s not. In the anime industry, film has generally played second fiddle to TV series. The films are almost always adaptations, and I think it hurts them more often than it helps. Films like Fist of the North Star, Dagger of Kamui, and Fate/Stay Night are all hampered by their attempts to tell a story not meant to be a mere two hours long. Ghibli showed that even in the modern-day anime industry, original films could not only be successful, but they could also be at the pinnacle of the industry. There are others now that make original films, like Makoto Shinkai and Mamoru Hosoda, but Ghibli was the best. It just makes me a bit sad to see them leave their roots.
I think my biggest disconnect with this film, though, is that it just isn’t my thing. Poppy Hill is a romance, plain and simple. I don’t even mean a romantic comedy, or any other form of the genre. It’s a romance, and nothing else. Unless you want to count the historical fiction aspect, there is no gimmick to the film. Boy meets girl, they have their ups and downs, and everybody has a happy lovey-dovey ending. Those ups and downs might throw you for a loop now and again — a woman in front of me in the theater gasped in shock at one particular development — but it’s a pretty straightforward love story.
And this is where I have a bit of trouble writing about it. I am no expert on romance stories, film or otherwise. I can’t tell you whether it was better or worse than any other romance tale; all I can do is relate my own reactions to it and hope that tells you something useful. The story moves pretty slow, especially at the beginning, and I found myself kinda bored during the first half. But this is a Ghibli film, and even when you’re bored all you have to do is look at the screen. You’ll undoubtedly find something interesting there.
The visuals here are gorgeous, as any Ghibli film is, but I did have my disappointments. The biggest is that Goro is far more accepting of CG than his father. This is Ghibli, of course, so it looks as good as it possibly could. In any other film, it wouldn’t have bothered me. But this is Ghibli, damn it! I expect better from them. I doubt most people would even notice, but for me it was rather depressing. Especially that bonfire scene. It was decent looking CG fire, but it was also obviously CG, and that never sits right with me. The other big CG element was a huge boat at the end of the film, though it at least looked better than the fire.
The plot improves in the second half as well, and I became more interested in seeing it through to the end. This is when those ups and downs kick in and the family history of the characters starts adding some depth to the story. Umi lost her father in the Korean War, and Shun never knew his real father. As the two grow closer, they also look into their pasts, and find some unsettling connections that have a serious impact on their relationship.
That Japanese subtlety of emotion fills Poppy Hill to the brim. In some ways this contributes to making the film slower, but in other ways it brings out that Japanese flavor and made me appreciate the film more. I think the best example of this is when Umi leaves for school one day, and one of her family members wishes her good luck with Shun. It could have had some melodramatic response of denial or embarrassment, but instead Umi thinks for a moment, then says “Thank you” and heads out to school. Had that scene happened any other way, it would have left me wrinkling my nose at the smell of cheese. The movie has no need to hit you over the head with its emotions, and the story feels all the more real because of it.
And that realism perhaps sums up the film best. It’s sweet, but without the sappiness. I imagine romance fans will eat this one up and love every moment of it. Someone that wants something more adventuresome however, will undoubtedly find it rather bland. I would never put this on a favorite films list, but the fact that I enjoyed such a simple romance story at all says quite a bit.