Everyone knows Studio Ghibli as one of the preeminent animated film studios in Japan, which has garnered international acclaim, awards, and earned the admiration of cinephiles everywhere. They have attained a level of prestige as high as Pixar and every film that gets a theater release in the United States is sure to make a profit. But like all good studios, every so often a mediocre film comes out. Especially when they decide to let Goro, Hayao Miyazaki’s son, direct it. I’m sure you can tell where this is going already.
Let’s take a look at Goro’s second film, From Up on Poppy Hill.
Based on a 1980’s manga by the same name, From Up on Poppy Hill (Kokurikozaka kara) follows young high school student Umi Matsuzaki in her seaside town of Yokohama. She helps her grandmother run a boarding house while her mother is away in the United States, and generally works incredibly hard within her household to keep things running. That all changes when she meets Shun, a fellow classmate who works on the school paper. They collaborate in helping to save the school’s club house, known as the Latin Quarter, and the two fall in love. The only problem? The two may actually be siblings separated at birth. And this is the exact moment the movie dies for me.
See, I have a sneaking suspicion that this was the manga series that made the whole we’re-siblings-but-totally-not-in-the-end-so-its-okay subgenre of anime and there is no trope I despise more. It’s lazy, cliche, stupid, and overall adds unfulfilling, uninteresting drama to series that could easy pick better plotlines. If the film were only about the cleaning up of the clubhouse and getting it approved, I would have been 100% okay with that. When you adapt a work, you don’t need to include everything in said work. I can’t fault the writing too much here because it is really genuine and tries really hard to make it seem less cliche but there is no saving this point. It is a real shame too. Some scenes of the film are fantastic, and really make the story feel whole, but they are constantly undercut by terrible ones of forced, uninteresting fake-incest drama.
The directing is pretty subpar overall. There are cutaways that last too long for no reason, inappropriate music plays during dramatic scenes, and the pacing is all over the place. I do give Goro the benefit that this movie was by far better than Tales of EarthSea which is at the bottom of everyone’s lists of Ghibli Films. And if you think these are all problems with the dub, especially with the music and pacing, I saw it with the original Japanese with subtitles (which, by the way, was no prize either. My Japanese isn’t great but I know they got stuff wrong). Honestly, if it was subtle bad directing, it wouldn’t be so terrible, but it kept pulling me out of the movie with its strange decisions.
As with all Ghibli movies, the artistry and overall cinematography is gorgeous. Even if Disney never makes another hand drawn film at least we will always have these. The visually stunning animation that never overwhelms the audience and manages to portray the 1960s in a more classic look, really setting the aesthetics apart from a more modern drama. Just by one look, I could tell that this film took place in the past, and not just because no one had cellphones.
Surprisingly, there’s not much else to say about this movie other than it was okay. I certainly wished I hadn’t paid IFC prices to see it, but it’s not something I loathe. From Up on Poppy Hill may not be one of the greats from Studio Ghibli, it’s certainly not the worst film they have produced. More than anything, what I saw is a whole bunch of squandered potential, which from Studio Ghibli is always a sad sight. If you’re intensely curious, go ahead and check it out, it’s just not one I would readily recommend.
– Beautiful artistry.
– Parts of the plot were well done and interesting.
– Poor direction.
– Incest plotline was rushed and handled poorly.