A few days ago, I had the opportunity to check out the newest film from Studio Ghibli, From Up on Poppy Hill. Studio Ghibli may perhaps be best known as the studio behind the critically lauded films Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle and Ponyo. From Up on Poppy Hill is fairly different from the other Studio Ghibli films I’ve had the pleasure of seeing and surprised me a bit when I was watching it. Although a bit too slow at times for me, overall, From Up on Poppy Hill is another success from Studio Ghibli and is worth a view for any animation fans.
From Up on Poppy Hill follows Umi (voiced by Sarah Bolger in the American version) as she struggles to balance everything in her life. She raises flags every morning in honor of her father – who is missing for initially unclear reasons – and runs her grandmother’s boarding house while her mother is in America pursuing studies of some kind. In the meantime, she is still a full-time high school student who quickly finds that school gets more complicated when she meets the charming Shun (voiced by Anton Yelchin in the American version) and finds herself trying to support the protection of a building on campus that means so much to him, a local clubhouse.
This film is not Spirited Away or Ponyo – the focus is not on the supernatural or the spiritual so much as it is on the very personal journeys taken by Umi and Shun. I was a huge fan of Ponyo and while I do think that it was a better film than From Up on Poppy Hill, it’s also difficult to compare simply because From Up on Poppy Hill is not “traditional” Studio Ghibli fare. It’s contemplative and very narrowly focused – it does not have the sweeping scope of previous films from the studio, but it also doesn’t try to grasp something that large either. Instead, the focus here is on character development and on that point it succeeds admirably.
The film particularly finds its voice towards the end when the various plotlines begin to come together in an emotional way, but it does feel like it took longer than necessary to get there. That’s not to say the rest of the film isn’t enjoyable – From Up on Poppy Hill has funny moments throughout the film that keep it relatively light and moving forward, even if it is at somewhat of a slow pace. However, the film just struggles a bit in terms of revealing key details – I found myself a tad bit frustrated that some of the backstory on Umi’s father wasn’t presented earlier in the film and I do think it would have been a stronger film had some of these revelations occurred earlier in the film.
None of this, however, can take away from the real strength of the film which is the beautiful animation. Studio Ghibli films only work on the emotional level because they work so fundamentally well at the aesthetic level. They are consistently unique and beautiful films that capture something beyond normal animation – the ability to put emotional reactions into characters and to somehow even embed it in the scenery is something that I would argue few studios – if anyone – can do as well as Studio Ghibli. On this front, From Up on Poppy Hill is no exception. So much of the emotional feel of the film can be captured by merely looking at the incredible animation on screen and this is an aspect where From Up on Poppy Hill unequivocally is a success.
Quite frankly, although the film was very different than I was expecting, I am tremendously glad I took the time to see it. The film is only an hour and a half and yet I really have spent the past two days reflecting on it and trying to figure out the themes and the references at play in the work. Often the sign of great art is how much it makes one think about some aspect of the human condition and if that is the case, there is simply no argument that From Up on Poppy Hill is not an artistic achievement, even if it is a tad slow at times.
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