High school, that time of life when you mock your friend’s lunch, execute a plot to save your academic clubhouse, and meet that special someone who turns out to be your sibling. I’m either a glutton for punishment, or an eternal optimist, as I give Hayao Miyazaki’s son, Goro Miyazaki a second chance with Studio Ghibli’s From Up on Poppy Hill in this installment of Creations of Chaos.
Writers: Hayao Miyazaki and Keiko Niwa
Director: Goro Miyazaki
Date Released: 2011
Version Watched: English Dubbed
The film begins with scenes of the main character, Umi, completing a myriad of chores. After morning chores, Umi attends school, completes another impressive amount of afternoon chores, then studies before bed. There is a meme saying, you have the same amount of hours in the day as Lin-Manuel Miranda, but I’d say, you have the same amount of hours in the day as Umi.
Umi’s father died during the Korean war, and her mother, we are told, is studying in America. Though her grandmother is present, it is up to Umi to keep the family boardinghouse running. At first Umi finds comfort in her daily routine. The business keeps her from dwelling on her misfortunes, but the cheerful, willing Cinderella, soon becomes overwhelmed by her responsibilities.
I think Umi is one of the more underrated Studio Ghibli characters. She is innocent, sweet, and above all, genuine. I think everyone knows an Umi, or is perhaps an Umi themselves. She wants to take care of others, she wants to help where she can, she blushes easily, and she is no stranger to feeling awkward. Your heart breaks for her when she displays her vulnerability, and just how helpless and hopeless she feels. Even when she is despairing, she remains fiercely determined.
Not Game of Thrones
There are two plots running simultaneously in From Up on Poppy Hill. The focused Umi befriends, and becomes distracted by, a school mate named Shun. The two develop feelings for each other, but Shun starts to pull away after seeing a picture of Umi’s father. Eventually Umi gets enough courage to confront Shun, and he admits that he has the same picture as Umi. They have the same father. Since this isn’t Game of Thrones, the two cannot move forward with their romance.
I first saw From Up on Poppy Hill when it came out in the theater. I remember thinking that the I-love-you-wait-we’re-actually-siblings plot was strange. I didn’t quite understand why anyone would make that part of a story. Is it something that often happens in Japan?
I understood it more this time around. There was a strong theme in the film regarding connecting to the past. Japan was so eager to forge ahead and progress after the war, they were leveling their past. Through this plot line, Umi learns to come to terms with her past, and her father’s death. Shun, who is adopted, reaches into his past to find his identity. The unexpected sibling plot is a way to weave in the theme. Of course, I exhaled a huge sigh of relief when Umi and Shun discover that they are not siblings.
I couldn’t figure out why Umi’s father wasn’t upfront with Shun’s adoptive parents. I don’t know why he didn’t just tell them that it was his friend’s baby instead of saying the baby was his.
The second plot thread involves Umi’s school’s academic clubhouse called, The Latin Quarter. The students who occupy The Latin Quarter, launch a campaign to save the building before it gets demolished. I must admit that I didn’t appreciate this part of the story the first time around. I think I was too caught up in the sibling love plot. Now that I knew what to expect, I immersed myself in the second plot.
The Latin Quarter is a mishmash of doors, rooms, stairs, books, and dust. It is romantically academic. It’s a building I would love to explore, with its endless staircases, and stained glass. The Latin Quarter is home to the school’s various academic clubs. There is the philosophy club, astronomy club, archaeology club, and the literature club, which Shun is a member of. The scene when the girls walk through the clubhouse for the first time is genius. There are clever, humorous quips, and little pieces of dialogue that poke fun at each club.
I’m not sure if it’s common in Japan, or perhaps just in the 1960s, but where were the sensitive, academically minded, sophisticated, charming boys when I was in high school? Shun and his compatriots are nothing but kind, polite, and respectful to the girls. My teenage self would have swooned over Shun. The voice work of the late Anton Yelchin, really allows Shun’s warmth and sincerity to shine.
With help from the girls, The Latin Quarter is spruced up and The Chairman is invited for a visit with the hope that he will change his mind about demolishing the building.
With the help of an eloquent speech by Umi, regarding needing The Latin Quarter to endure so that young people will always have something from the past to connect to, The Chairman agrees to allow the building to stay. I cheered.
Maybe Goro Miyazaki is a better director than writer, or maybe he just tried tackling too much with Tales from Earthsea. I thoroughly enjoyed From Up on Poppy Hill, especially the second time around. It’s smart, filled with genuine, charming characters, and will make you think about the things that connect you to your own past.