I remember when the “Studio Ghibli” brand stood for quality. I remember watching Princess Mononoke and thinking it was one of the greatest animated films ever made. I remember watching Spirited Away multiple times back in the day.
But then came Ponyo, a film that was way too cute and weird for its own good, though it had enough fantastic ideas to stay interesting. After that came The Secret World of Arrietty, a film that might have been a masterpiece if it wasn’t kneecapped by glacial pacing. I could make defenses for these films, but there’s no denying the steady drop in quality since the studio’s halcyon days.
Which brings us to From Up on Poppy Hill.
In the interest of fairness, I should point out that Ghibli mastermind Hayao Miyazaki did not direct this feature. Instead, he wrote and produced the screenplay for the sophomore directorial effort of his son. In case you’re wondering, Goro Miyazaki made his debut with Tales from Earthsea, an animated adaptation of the novels by Portland’s own Ursula K. Le Guin.
Though I haven’t seen Tales from Earthsea, I understand that it got a mixed-to-negative critical reception. In fact, the film was awarded the year’s “Worst Movie” and “Worst Director” dishonors by the Bunshun Raspberry Awards. Though I can’t speak to the quality of that movie, if From Up on Poppy Hill is any indication, I’m guessing that the awards were not entirely undeserved.
The film takes place in Japan during the early 1960s. Not only are preparations being made for the 1964 Summer Olympics, but the country is still gathering the pieces from WWII and the Korean War. It’s a very tumultuous time in Japan, marked by huge changes in culture and government. Thusly, the film tries to express a theme of the past getting steamrolled by the future. In execution, it’s a very interesting new take on the classic Ghibli conflict of mankind and technology against nature and spirituality.
Or at least it might have been interesting, if this conflict wasn’t presented in the most inane way possible. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Our protagonist is Umi Matsuzaki (voiced in the English version by up-and-comer Sarah Bolger), who lives in a boarding house on the eponymous Poppy Hill. Because her father died in the Korean War and her mother is studying abroad, Umi basically runs the place with her grandmother while going to school and caring for her younger siblings. It’s a lot to handle, but Umi manages it quite well.
This is where the film started to lose me.
Much like Arrietty, this is a 90-minute film that feels three hours long. The first act is especially dreadful, as huge swaths of screentime go by without any sign of conflict or character development. At least in Arrietty, we had fantastic sights to grab our attention and characters who were worth our sympathy. In Poppy Hill, it’s just ordinary and mundane people doing ordinary and mundane things. No motivation, no tension, no surprises, no nothing.
…Well, okay, that’s not entirely true. When we first meet the love interest (Shun Kazama, voiced by Anton Yelchin), he leaps from the roof of a building into a tiny little pool of stagnant water in a ridiculously contrived scheme at catching Umi’s attention. There’s never any explanation given as to why he did this (much less why he thought it would work), the stunt has no effect on the plot whatsoever, and Shun never does anything so foolhardy or outlandish at any other point in the film. So basically, it’s just stupid.
Throughout the whole film, I kept struggling to find a point. Where was the conflict? Where was the crisis? What were the stakes? Where was the story? How do I tell these characters apart and why should I care about them? Mother of God and all her wacky nephews, why was I watching this movie?!
To be fair, there is a token attempt at a conflict: At Umi’s school, there’s a dilapidated house called the Latin Quarter, which plays home to various academic clubs. And for some unknown reason, the Latin Quarter is populated entirely with men. Admittedly, the Latin Quarter is kind of interesting. There are some neat handmade gadgets weaving through the halls, and the occupying students parody academia in ways that got an occasional chuckle out of me.
Anyway, the film’s central crisis is that the students have to save the Latin Quarter. How does this make the movie a failure? Let me count the ways.
For one thing, the stakes are terribly defined. If the Latin Quarter is destroyed, then the students will just get a new building for all of their club activities, so what’s really lost?
The film counter-argues that if the Latin Quarter is demolished, then a significant portion of the school’s history will go down with it. Unfortunately, the film completely fails to define the Latin Quarter’s historical significance or how the school’s future would be impacted without it. This goes back to my previous point: Conflict isn’t worth a damn unless we appreciate what’s at stake.
Moreover, Shun gives a very impassioned speech about preserving and respecting the past, implicitly tying this conflict into the greater changes happening through Japan at the time. Unfortunately, this comes off as ridiculously half-baked. The film spends the bare minimum of time exploring Japan’s cultural exchanges, instead using the Latin Quarter crisis as a kind of symbol for it. Since the larger and smaller conflicts are both failures, the whole thematic angle falls flat.
Even worse, the Latin Quarter debate is trivialized by the characters participating in it. The students in this film are portrayed as a rowdy and raucous bunch, prone to outbursts of violence and borderline-incapable of civilized discourse. Precious few of them act like actual human beings, which means that we’re given no reason to pick sides for one or the other. The students, their actions, and their arguments are all played for laughs, even when they’re discussing the film’s themes. We’re never given a reason to take any of them seriously, which means that we cannot take anything they say or do seriously. Not even when they’re acting on or talking about the movie’s themes.
Another problem is that of all the hundreds of bit part characters in this film, pretty much the only two that we can empathize with are Umi and Shun. As a result, the two are totally drowned out in all the redundant comic relief. The lion’s share of the work is instead done by kids we don’t know a thing about and have no reason to care for. Though the movie frequently tries to tell us otherwise, we can see for ourselves that the protagonists have precious little effect on the Latin Quarter’s renovation when all is said and done. That, needless to say, is a big fucking problem.
Instead, Umi and Shun get a romance subplot that is laughably executed from start to finish. Its beginning was stupid enough, but then a twist comes halfway when we learn that Shun may actually be Umi’s long-lost brother. First of all, I think Shun himself said it best: “It’s like a cheap melodrama.” No, seriously, that’s an actual in-context quotation from the movie.
Secondly, the film tries to play this as some heartbreaking revelation, like the two could never be together because they’re related. The very concept of familial love without incest is never even mentioned. Never once in the entire movie does Umi look out for Shun, though she’s clearly used to looking after her other siblings. Even worse, Shun doesn’t react to this news by treating Umi like a brother, but like a total dick. He shows absolutely no relief or wonder at this discovery of a family he never knew he had.
Basically put, it’s false drama that’s artificially heightened because the characters are all acting like numskulls. FAIL.
So we’ve got the worthless Latin Quarter crisis and the broken romance melodrama, in addition to a pointless subplot about some character leaving the boarding house and a bunch of useless scenes to show Umi going about her daily life. The whole movie is loaded with so much clutter, all of it completely boring and entirely predictable. And at the end of it, I still couldn’t bring myself to care about a single character.
I complained about the catastrophic blimp crash at the end of such a trifle as Kiki’s Delivery Service, but at least that was a token effort to inject something interesting into what would otherwise be an airy little kids’ film. This movie is worse on both counts: Absolutely nothing of interest ever happens, and the movie doesn’t seem to have any idea who its audience is.
Still, we haven’t discussed the visuals yet. Studio Ghibli has long been known as the last great bastion of 2D animation, and its films look no less gorgeous for its lack of — or extremely minimal use of — CGI. Alas, even that great strength of Ghibli is starting to falter. Oh, the characters and set designs all look wonderful, don’t get me wrong, but the animation is somewhat lacking. This was particularly obvious in the mouth movements, especially at the beginning. I know the voice dubbing doesn’t help, but the characters’ mouths opened far too wide to look natural. It was the same enormous “O”-shaped movement every time. I’ll grant that the trend got less noticeable as the film went on, but still.
From Up on Poppy Hill is a painfully, aggressively boring misfire. The film’s pacing was so dreadfully mismanaged that it completely ruined any potential this film might have had. There is no character development, tension, central crisis, or thematic point that is worth a damn because it’s all buried under so much tedium.
Don’t even think of bothering with this one, especially if you’re a Ghibli fan. I don’t care how beautiful this film is, every other Ghibli film I’ve seen so far was more beautiful still, and far more entertaining as well.