2015 is the 30th anniversary of the founding of Studio Ghibli and, according to Hayao Miyazaki, it may also be one of its final years as a studio. Because this is one of my favorite films studios and Miyazaki is one of my favorite artists, who’s made some of my favorite films, I’ve decided to go through the history of Studio Ghibli one film at a time.
If you’re looking for the discussions of the previous weeks:
- Laputa: Castle in the Sky
- Grave of the Fireflies
- My Neighbor Totoro
- Kiki’s Delivery Service
- Only Yesterday
- Porco Rosso
- Pom Poko
- Whisper of the Heart
- Princess Mononoke
- My Neighbors the Yamadas
- Spirited Away
- The Cat Returns
- Howl’s Moving Castle
- Tales from Earthsea
- The Borrower Arrietty
This does, however, mean I won’t be discussing Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, which was made before the founding of the studio.
I’ll also only be discussing the Japanese audio version of the films, though that doesn’t mean the dubs are bad or not worth seeing. They’re just slightly different. I’ll also be discussing these with the assumption that they’ve been seen by you. So, yes, spoilers are below.
Gorō Miyazaki’s second film, From Up on Poppy Hill, is quite different from his first, both in content, quality, and style. Where Tales from Earthsea is a plot driven fantasy, From Up on Poppy Hill is a historical romantic film more governed by relationships than it is by plot. It’s a film about the interior of human life and cultural identity, rather than external conflicts. This makes it a bit more difficult to summarise, since the film really isn’t about what people do. It’s more about how people relate to one another and the world.
That’s not to say that there’s no choices or actions made in the film, and these actions do guide what happens, but this film is much more similar to My Neighbor Totoro, in certain ways, than it is to Howl’s Moving Castle or Princess Mononoke. It’s a quiet and subdued film about being a high school student living at a very interesting time in a nation’s history.
The 1960s in Japan were a tumultuous time, much as it was across the globe. The generational differences were becoming more pronounced and students were taking active steps in the defining of their national identities. This film is largely concerned with the modernisation of Japan and how the past was being demolished to make room for the modern world.
This is a serious issue that too few people become aware of until it’s too late. I see it in my own city of Minneapolis, where homes that have existed for 100 years are torn down to make way for luxury apartments. I saw it across South Korea and Ireland when I lived in those countries, and I saw it in Beijing. The past is destroyed to make way for the future.
While there are reasons why this may be necessary or even a good thing, it also threatens to dismantle the things that define who we are as a culture. When I was in Beijing, the people I spoke with were very concerned about the elimination of Hutongs, for example.
In the film, this focuses on the Quartier Latin, or the Latin Quarter, an old building where the various school clubs are housed. The city and the school board want to tear it down to make space for an updated student center and whathaveyou. This is the external conflict of the film, which is really a deeply internal conflict about what it means to be Japanese in the 60s and even what it means to be Japanese right now.
It’s a film about identity and how we, as people, choose who and what we are. We define ourselves collectively. We generally blame this on politicians, on governments, on corporations, partly because they deserve blame, but also because it’s easier to put the blame on systems of power than it is to do anything about it.
What this film really represents is how grass roots efforts can make change. The students of the school do end up saving the Latin Quarter through their collective efforts. Sure, the big businessman comes in at the end to stand up for them, but that couldn’t happen without them marching to his door and pushing for what they believe in.
I mean, it’s not an idealistic situation. Grass roots efforts and collective efforts make change, but sometimes it’s not enough. Sometimes the only way for things to get done is for someone with enough power to come out and support what they believe in. Hopefully, this will align with prosocial activities. Unfortunately, this is often not the case.
But the film takes an optimistic stance here, and not an unreasonable one. Who would stand up and tell students that what they want doesn’t matter?
Unfortunately, if you’ve been paying attention in america, we see how often people come out against students and even going so far as to actively attack them.
But From Up on Poppy Hill is not about current US universities.
The other story line is a coming of age romance between Umi and Shun.
Umi is a high school student living at a boarding house overlooking the Port of Yokohama owned by her grandmother. Her mother is a medical professor studying in the US, so Umi works as the caretaker. She feeds her siblings and the medical students living with them. Every morning, she raises a set of signal flags with the message, “I pray for safe voyage.”
Shun, the school newspaper editor, writes and publishes a poem about the signal flags in the school newspaper. He then performs a publicity stunt for the newspaper, which brings them together. Umi begins helping Shun with the school newspaper and witnesses the debate on whether or not the Latin Quarter should be demolished, where Shun makes a rousing speech. This speech gains a lot of attention and support for the clubhouse, which results in many of the students coming together to renovate the building.
Umi and Shun become closer and closer. The attraction is obvious as is the longing. This becomes complicated when they discover that they may be siblings.
Despite their potential shared genetic material, their feelings persist and they confess to one another that they are in love. It’s a sweet and terribly awkward moment. A moment so full of tension and longing, but also so devastating.
Because we don’t choose who to love. We don’t get to pick who we fall in love with. And though they discover their shared parentage late in their relationship, they find themselves slipping deeper into love. A love they know they can’t act on.
Making it worse, they are constantly pushed together at school in their shared effort to save the Latin Quarter.
In love and knowing they must never be together, they save the Latin Quarter and discover that they are, in fact, not actually siblings.
It’s a bit complicated, but it makes perfect sense.
From Up on Poppy Hill is a cute historical coming of age romance, but it has a super odd element inside it. That being the potential incestuous relationship between our main characters. It’s a very strange element, especially for something that’s mostly appropriate for children and adults. In many ways, it’s just a very peculiar plot complication to what should be a relatively normal teenage romance.
Anyrate, that’s the film’s story.
But I do like this film. I like the ideas it plays with and I like how well it captures what it’s like to be young and idealistic. What it’s like to be young and so full of passion and good intentions that you’ll do whatever you can to make it happen. It also captures how silly and hilarious school can be, even though everything matters so much that you can barely even think.
How love hits you like a sledgehammer. How it tears you apart when you feel you’re losing it. The scene after Umi discovers that she and Shun might be siblings is so powerful It’s brilliant. It feels so real, because I’ve been there. We all have. We’ve all fallen in love only to have it break us. We drown in our tears and pain so powerful we can barely stand.
And that’s what this film is really about. Emotion and identity. Who we are as individuals and as societies. The power of choice and love, how crushing it is to lose either or both.
From Up on Poppy Hill is a great film that shows Gorō Miyazaki has the strength to follow in his father’s footsteps. He made a beautiful and honest film with powerful emotions and interesting ideas. He’ll never be his father, but he doesn’t have to be. With the dissolution of Studio Ghibli, I hope he finds a future in filmmaking, because there’s a lot of promise here.
Next week, we’re onto Hayao Miyazaki’s last film, The Wind Rises.