From Up on Poppy Hill Review

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Studio Ghibli’s From Up on Poppy Hill handles the slice of life anime format in a beautifully understated way. It strips away all of the unnecessary drama you might expect and instead tells a story that is emotionally resonant, beautifully lifelike and I never felt the need to suspend my disbelief for even a moment. Sure it’s not the most fast paced story in the world, but with the current over-saturation of film releases desperately seeking to one up each other, the film’s slower and more relaxed attitude makes it stand out better than most comparable films.

The story follows a young Japanese schoolgirl named Umi living in a small Japanese town in the run up to the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Following the passing of her father at a young age out at sea, she finds herself taking on the majority of parental responsibilities in her family. She helps her grandmother host boarders, takes on a parental role for her younger sister and keeps the house running. She does all of this while raising flags every day for her father out at sea in the hopes that, wherever he is, he will see them and know she’s thinking of him. However, she’s living more of an existence than a life.

There are a few different interwoven stories throughout the running time. We explore the fact that Umi is living but doesn’t really have a life of her own, her grandmother’s belief that falling in love will help her move on from her father’s death and a school’s fight not to have its club house torn down. Each of these stories is nicely interwoven, progressing at a nice relaxed pace and only putting in twists where they’re absolutely necessary and believable.

The romantic theme running through the film is in many ways simple and predictable. As soon as we see Shun introduced, making a big exciting spectacle to catch the attention of students for the sake of his cause, it’s clear how much of the romance will play out. Umi goes to work with him and help his cause, they slowly fall for each other and become the figureheads of the cause while Umi learns to live a little more and so on. Where the romance takes a very unexpected turn is in regards to a revelation about the characters families which complicates the romance significantly.

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The loving couple we’re meant to root for discover part way through as they build their romance that they may in fact share a father. Without spoiling the way it’s resolved, it’s not something that ever feels forced or like it’s a trivial issue that’s being make into a big issue just to give the protagonists an obstacle to overcome; it’s a real issue for the pair that is handled with a great deal of care. Rather than just resorting to the overused solution of suggesting that the couple return to being friends and forget their feelings, only to discover they were never related to begin with and can admit their feelings once more, Ghibli take a big risk by exploring the possibility that the loving couple may wish to stay together, and by taking that chance the film really does succeed in having a level of depth and maturity I didn’t expect.

One of the things I really respect is how the film’s art style manages to create what feels like a real, living, breathing world. This is a world that manages to capture an essence of reality and represent it in an animated form. It’s a very believable and natural feeling world full of characters that, while we never focus on them for long, all seem distinct and help to flesh out the surrounding world.

Likewise the music is wonderfully fitting and helps establish a wonderfully light hearted world, while never being overpowering or forced. There’s lots of gentle ragtime piano layered with a gentle female vocalist, tracks with French jazz inspirations and a soundtrack that is just lovely to listen to.

From Up on Poppy Hill is as brilliant as any of Ghibli’s best films, but for very different reasons. Take away the fantasy, the magic and the surreal themes and you’re left with a much slower tale of personal growth. You’ll need to be patient with the opening, which arguably spends too long setting the mood and themes up, but the pay off at the end of the film makes everything worthwhile. The slower start nicely reflects the differences between Umi’s life, the life Tokyo was heading toward and our lives today in terms of our attitude to use of our own time. It gave me enough time to become totally engrossed in the world presented to me. It’s not a film of grand spectacle and adventure, but rather a beautiful tale of love, remembrance and looking toward the future.

From Up on Poppy Hill opens in UK cinemas 2 August. 

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