Long Live the Latin Quarter! A Review of From Up On Poppy Hill

“Fair girl, do you send thoughts to the sky?”

I had the immense pleasure of being able to attend a screening of Goro Miyazaki’s sophomore piece, Kokurikozaka Kara, localized at the Toronto Film Festival as From Up On Poppy Hill. Due to the mood established by the festival itself, as well as the experience of watching this movie in a theatre, my overall impression of the film was enhanced. Watching a film at an event like TIFF is almost always worth going to. I regret being unable to watch the other anime feature, Production I.G’s A Letter to Momo.

Nonetheless, as a film itself, Poppy Hill is worth every bit of praise that it will eventually get. It brings the postwar Japan period to life through its marvellous visuals and captivating soundtrack, and marries it with a very nice coming of age romance, packed with enough melodrama and symbolism to rouse both the emotional and the intellectual. This is a movie for everyone to enjoy.

The story is about the relationship that develops between Umi Komatsuzaki and Shun Kazama. Umi is a warmhearted, responsible girl who takes care of her extended family, as well as help run a lodging home in the absence of her parents. She is sentimental and holds important things close to her heart. Shun is a daring, charismatic boy who is the public figurehead of the preservation of Quartier Latin (the Latin Quarter), a building in their school which houses a wide variety of academic clubs.

Furthermore, their romantic development revolves around communication, as well as the lack thereof. At the beginning of the movie, their initial contact with each other was anonymous, through the usage of signal falgs between Umi from her house atop the titular Poppy hill, and Shun’s and his father’s fishing boat, which also bears a halyard for a flag. Flags bear importance to Umi, as her father has roots in the Japanese Navy. They are the central symbol in the movie, and their usage as a recurring motif is handled with utmost care, and provides a good deal of emotional impact throughout the plot.

They meet in person through their high school, when Umi reads a romantic poem subtly addressed to her through the school’s newsletter. Shun makes his dramatic appearance to her when he jumps from the top of his school into an aqueduct during the middle of a demonstration for the preservation of the Latin Quarter. Umi, despite her disdain, is immediately drawn into the world of Shun’s activism.

And what a world it is at first! The Latin Quarter is perhaps at once the liveliest as well as the most run-down, dilapidated building I’ve ever seen in animated film. The art of the clubhouse itself is a design marvel, spanning several stories, stacked from floor to ceiling with papers and props, and doesn’t skimp on the crawly critters that jump out when one feels that it’s not as dirty as they would think at first.

And yet, despite its structural and organizational flaws that make it a target for demolition in preparation for the 1964 Olympics, it boasts a old-school culture and academic spirit that knows no equal in anime. All the clubs portrayed in the building take on their own personalities, making up a very intricate social microcosm, filled with unnamed, yet unforgettable faces. One in particular is the philosophy club, whose president is a loveable goof, yet at the same time utterly devoted to his hobby.

It’s a world that Umi gets into gradually, and results in her gradual progression into total involvement with Shun’s cause, and it is realistically reflected through her changes at home, and how it affects her ability to balance school with her responsibilities. Shun is in turn introduced into Umi’s world, which results in another plot development involving Umi’s father, and the identity of Shun’s real parents.

From here, the relationship develops not only alongside the attempted restoration and preservation of the Latin Quarter, but also alongside the relationship between Umi’s lovestruck younger sister Sora, and Shun’s right-hand man and student council president, Shiro Mizunuma.

This parallel relationship is not fully developed, but provides a nice reference point and comparison for the tribulations that occur between the two main characters. It makes the primary couple develop more organically, and it makes their relationship more real, despite the unique circumstances that surround them. Just when you think that they come closer to actually getting together, they take a step back due to various revelations in the plot. It plays with the audience’s heart, but knows how to do so without being overbearing to the point where one would feel that Umi and Shun should “just get it over with and get together already.”

In fact, the opposite occurs. The plot of their relationship gets resolved seemingly early, and the rest of the movie is spent on resolving the plot involving the Latin Quarter as well as the mystery behind Shun’s past. It feels a bit tacked on, and not well-integrated with the relationship thread, but the resolution is very satisfactory either way, and the ending evokes all of the warm sixties feelings that the movie successfully portrayed and brought to life.

One reason for such effective production values is the music. Despite the visual art being filled with soft, nostalgic colours, the music, composed by Satoshi Takebe, truly sets the mood for all of its actions. From the opening sequence, laden with an era-establishing honky tonk theme in “Breakfast Song,” the standard is set for the rest of the film, to the cool jazz stylings of the Latin Quarter, to the strong, yet subdued jazz vocals sung during a nice romantic moment where Umi rides down Poppy Hill on Shun’s bike.

Even the in-universe music, featuring a number of school anthems sung by the student body is performed with a genuine authenticity, flowing with overwhelming levels of school spirit, highly appropriate and suited for the Latin Quarter restoration.

The acting is quite phenomenal, and reflects a theatrical voice acting experience, as none of the major characters are primarily associated with the anime industry. The lone anime voice acting credit that I could find was that of Shunsuke Kazama, the voice of the student council president, who previously starred as Yugi Moto in Yu-Gi-Oh. Assuredly, his role in the movie takes on none of the somewhat hammy tones that one would normally find in televised anime. This production is moreso a film that happens to be animated in Japan than it is an anime movie.

From Up On Poppy Hill has all the makings of a Ghibli film, with production values that are comparable to anything that Hayao Miyazaki has ever made. However, this is not a Hayao Miyazaki film. This is Goro Miyazaki, and the difference between his film and his father’s are as clear as they come, for better and for worse. Don’t watch this movie expecting something like Spirited Away or My Neighbour Totoro, just because it’s made by Studio Ghibli. Poppy Hill has its own spirit, has its own merits, and despite having some of the directorial flaws associated with Goro, has none of the political agenda that Hayao would often show in some of his works.

From Up On Poppy Hill is warm and fuzzy, endlessly refreshing, and alongside Hiromasa Yonebashi’s The Borrower Arrietty, it shows that Studio Ghibli is showing that it is capable of showcasing talents beyond Hayao and Isao Takahata of Grave of the Fireflies fame. This film is definitely worth a watch, and is more than deserving of its inclusion in the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival.

Rating: 8/10 (Very Good)

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