Edinburgh Filmhouse is currently hosting the Scotland Loves Anime film festival (which you can also find in Glasgow), and so of course I jumped at the chance to watch Studio Ghibli’s latest film, which made it’s Scottish debut here. I will also be covering a re-release of Ninja Scroll and Mamoru Hosoda’s new film Wolf Children.
One of the many things to love about Studio Ghibli – the powerhouse Japanese studio most famous here for films such as Spirited Away and Ponyo – is that their films are always about so much more than their plots. So Whisper of the Heart holds appeal because it is not just a high school romance, but a tribute to the power of imagination, whilst Princess Mononoke contains within its fantasy epic story a powerful ecological message about the balance of nature. The layers in these films are sometimes a little difficult to see for those unfamiliar with Japanese culture (Pom Poko and My Neighbours the Yamadas are firmly rooted in folklore), but in almost everything the studio produces there is more to it than meets the eye.
So it is with From Up On Poppy Hill, their latest film and the second from Goro Miyazaki, the son of Ghibli’s legendary founder and most prolific director, Hayao Miyazaki. The plot focuses, as always, on a strong female character. Here it is Umi, a schoolgirl whose father died in the Korean war and whose mother is in America studying. Left to look after the house and their lodgers, Umi soon gets distracted by a charismatic boy at her school, Shun, and a mission to renovate their school’s clubhouse. Yet the film, really, is about the hope of restoration in a country that had been shattered by fascism and war, and was seeking to rebuild itself and its culture after a period of American occupation. It is these undercurrents of hope and redemption, as well as the incredible artwork and beautiful score, that elevates the film above a standard teenage angst drama, and establishes it as one of the finest, most moving animations to come out this year.
The film is set in 1963, the year before Tokyo held the Olympics, and more importantly, the year when those who were born in 1945 would be turning eighteen. It’s the start of a new generation of those who would not remember the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a time when those in school would be free from the national guilt that came with the atrocities at Nanking. When better to set a film about an old building being renovated? Both Umi and Shun have had their lives permanently affected by war in Korea (Japan proved to be a crucial ally to America in that ugly conflict), yet it is in their brightness and their enthusiasm that the future of Japan lies. Umi raises signal flags each day from her house on the titular hill, in memory of her father, showing that the nation is still recovering from war. But her burgeoning and often awkward romance with Shun represents a hope that, even in the face of loss, rebuilding is possible.
Not only that, but the clubhouse, a wonderfully animated building full of creaking beams and old books piled to the ceiling, is a beautiful representation of the dilemma that faced Japan after the war and occupation. Should they start all over and create something wholly new, or preserve their culture and everything that went before? The crucial role of women in the building renovation also shows a new Japan emerging. There is still a very noticeable gender divide in the schooling system, from uniforms to social spaces, yet it is the women of the film who prove to have the most agency and resilience. It is Umi who spearheads the preservation of the building, and the women in her life are all creative, intelligent and independent. Ghibli films have always had strong women at their centre, and here it is evident that women are an essential part of a new Japan, and that it is crucial that the genders begin to integrate.
It is fitting, then, that a film imbued with such a sense of promise for the future, and focussing on a new generation, is directed by Goro Miyazaki. That the film was written by his father and that he is the one to direct shows a nice synthesis between art and life. Goro’s last film was the much derided Tales From Earthsea, one of the very, very few films that could be considered a ‘bad’ Ghibli film. It was a sloppily structured mess that (apparently) showed no respect for the source material. It also arrived in a storm of rumours that father and son argued intensely, and that it was never intended for Goro to take over the reigns at the studio (the director of Whisper of the Heart, and Miyazaki protégé Yoshifumi Kondo, sadly died after his first film). So after an inglorious debut, and with time marching ever on for Miyazaki Senior, the question of what would happen to the studio hung heavily over their future projects. That Goro can then deliver something as heartfelt as this, and working on a script written by his father, is promising indeed. It’s a beautifully drawn, moving film that sits on the mature, personal end of the studio’s spectrum. This is one of their most fantasy-free films, closest to Whisper or Only Yesterday in tone. It’s a quiet, tender film that truly shows the promise of Miyazaki Junior, which forms a rather poignant parallel with the story that’s being told. From Up On Poppy Hill shows once again that with Studio Ghibli, there’s is always so much more to it than meets the eye.