Restraint is a dying art. Filmmakers are scrambling more than ever to upstage one another. More excitement! Bigger shocks! Shinier graphics! So focused are they on bedazzling the audience, they forget that restraint can be just as powerful, if not more so. Studio Ghibli’s From Up on Poppy Hill exemplifies the power of restraint. It doesn’t try too hard to stand out—and, in doing so, ironically stands out from its desperate attention-seeking contemporaries.
Poppy Hill takes place in 1963 Yokohama, Japan, the year before the 1964 Summer Olympics (http://www NULL.olympic NULL.org/tokyo-1964-summer-olympics) in Tokyo. High-school student Umi Matsuzaki deftly juggles many roles—big sister, housekeeper, proprietress, and student—all without parental support. Her life is peaceful but perfunctory, more an existence than a life. This changes when she witnesses fellow student Shun Kazama perform a dangerous stunt at school to raise awareness for a movement to save the Quartier Latin (Latin Quarter), the school’s historic but dilapidated clubhouse.
Shun and his faction love the Latin Quarter and will fight to preserve it. Most students, however, as well as the school administration, see the worn-out building as an eyesore that needs to be demolished. Amid the simmering tension, Umi begins to volunteer with the Latin Quarter’s newsletter. In time, she becomes the catalyst that ignites the preservation movement, and she and Shun develop feelings for one another. However, unexpected developments soon threaten both the preservation movement and Umi and Shun’s future together.
It’s a simple story, one that could easily degrade into a cheap melodrama, as one of the characters puts it. But thanks to second-time director Gorō Miyazaki’s judicious sense of restraint, the story remains sincere and unpretentious. Poppy Hill feels carefully crafted, never standing out too much and never growing feeble.
The artwork is clean, beautiful, and understated. The backgrounds paint a gentle portrait of 1963 Yokohama, with colors that look natural and not overpowering. The soft glow of streetlights and headlights accentuates the beauty of Yokohama at night. Characters are tastefully drawn and not given to exaggerated facial features or expressions. The result is a believable and beautiful depiction of reality in animated form.
Poppy Hill’s music complements its scenes well, drawing out the right emotions without thrusting them inordinately to the fore. The soundtrack is surprisingly eclectic, with seeming hints of country and ragtime in the opening song, instances of French musette and jazz, and anthemic songs that add a light patriotic touch. (Surprisingly, the anthemic songs are sung in English in the dub.) And perfectly complementing the 1963 Japan setting is “Ue o Muite Arukō (http://en NULL.wikipedia NULL.org/wiki/Sukiyaki_%28song%29)” (「上を向いて歩こう」, “I Will Walk Looking Up”), better known in English-speaking lands as “Sukiyaki (http://en NULL.wikipedia NULL.org/wiki/Sukiyaki).”
Poppy Hill‘s greatest strength is its storytelling. Gorō Miyazaki’s careful guidance makes Poppy Hill feel like a genuine slice of life, where characters feel like real people leading everyday lives. Their trials and triumphs feel relatable and down-to-earth. In contrast to the epic dramas that inundate the world, Poppy Hill’s drama rises naturally out of these ordinary people and events. And it does this without blowing them out of proportion like a soap opera.
The English dub deserves praise particularly. The dub contains several embellished ancillary lines that make it more fun to watch than the comparatively clinical English subtitles. Some are substitutions of existing lines, while others are new additions. Though minor and quickly dispensed with, these add a lot of flavor, enlivening the viewing experience and bringing even tertiary characters to life. The English-speaking actors play their parts with skillful moderation, neither over- nor underacting. They increase intensity only when necessary; even the big-name actors in tiny roles show due restraint. The actors give Poppy Hill the dignity it deserves.
Of course, nothing is perfect, and Poppy Hill is no exception. The same embellished lines that enliven the dub may turn off purists. Furthermore, the dub seems to alter key dialogue slightly in at least one instance, which, if true, would further turn off purists. On the other hand, the English subtitles, while presumedly closer to the original Japanese, are a little too dry, merely translating the dialogue and failing to elevate it above cold information.
What really hurts Poppy Hill are two storytelling missteps. One, the initial pacing is very slow, almost unbearably so. It takes effort to stay with the movie until it stops meandering. Perhaps this slowness is a reflection of the times in which Poppy Hill takes place. One could argue that the movie isn’t slow—modern society has become too fast. Nevertheless, for today’s audience, the beginning of Poppy Hill will try the patience of some.
Two, the story fails to develop several secondary characters and their relationships with and significance to Umi. In one scene, Umi tells a close acquaintance she’s going to miss her. However, not once does Poppy Hill show why she’s going to miss her. These characters merely exist, and for seemingly no reason. Even if there was a reason, Miyazaki fails to justify their existence to the audience. Therefore, when Umi tells her acquaintance she’s going to miss her, her words ring hollow to them. These characters represent a wasted opportunity to further enrich the world of Poppy Hill.
Even with these issues, however, From Up on Poppy Hill is a pleasant movie to watch. The artwork is lovely, the soundtrack is excellent, and the drama is sincere and unpretentious. It won’t dazzle audiences, but it doesn’t need to. Gorō Miyazaki may have stumbled a bit, but using only simple human drama and a real-world setting as building blocks, he and Studio Ghibli have delivered a compelling story that belies its humble ingredients.
From Up on Poppy Hill is based on Coquelicot-zaka kara (http://en NULL.wikipedia NULL.org/wiki/Kokurikozaka_kara) (『コクリコ坂から』), a 1980 manga written by Tetsurō Sayama and illustrated by Chizuru Takahashi. Hayao Miyazaki and Keiko Niwa co-wrote the screenplay. Gorō Miyazaki directed. From Up on Poppy Hill is currently screening in theaters across the United States and in select Canadian cities—visit North American distributor GKIDS’ (Guerrilla Kids International Distribution Syndicate) website for ticket and availability information (http://gkids NULL.tv/poppyhilltickets/). All Images ©2011 Chizuru Takahashi – Tetsuro Sayama – GNDHDDT