From Up on Poppy Hill
Studio Ghibli's latest is an oddly conceived animation that partners community spirit with incest
Studio Ghibli have never played it safe by churning out sequels and remakes; instead they have chosen to push boundaries, notably with 1988’s groundbreaking Grave of the Fireflies, which stunningly depicted the lingering last few days of two children dying of radiation poisoning after a nuclear explosion during WWII. From Up on Poppy Hill’s innocuous title conceals that Goro Miyazaki‘s film is about incest, although the subject is skated around in a rather jolly way that seems oddly conceived.
Umi (Sarah Bolger in the American dubbed version) is a little girl who lives in a seaside-town and signals to passing sailors every day, broken-hearted by her father’s death in the Korean war. She is watched and admired by another amorous tyke Shun (Anton Yelchin), who offers her both romance and bicycle rides. Together with their class of school-mates, they’re engaged in the noble task of reuniting the student populace to restore the old clubhouse in the school grounds.
From Up on Poppy Hill has the famed Ghibli touch in evidence, conveying the atmospheric feel for the rhythms of small town-life near Tokyo in 1964, but the focus on the blossoming romance jars with the incest drama, which is sensitively but coyly handled. The sub-plot, about the clubhouse restoration, is handled with far more confident tone, and such cheerful elan sits strangely with the dark cloud hanging over their relationship.
Adherents to the Ghibli style will note that From Up on Poppy Hill shows Goro Miyazaki’s displaying much of his father Hayao’s gift for accomplished story-telling than his overblown 2006 effort Tales From Earthsea, and the sincerity and sentiment of this film are there to be basked in. Yet audiences outside Japan may find the subject too serious and yet too slight; there’s a reason why films about potential incest aren’t often as cute as this.