Sep 172012


The highest grossing Japanese film of 2011, From Up On Poppy Hill (コクリコ坂から) was written by the master of animation Hayao Miyazaki (with Keiko Niwa, and based on the comics written by Tetsuro Sayama), directed by Goro Miyazaki, and was produced by animation powerhouse Studio Ghibli – What a pedigree! Thankfully the film lives up to the reputation of the names behind it. It’s a heartfelt and charming story, anchored by historical facts and the strong female characters which Ghibli films are known for. Review after the jump!

It’s 1963 in Yokohama, and Japan is a nation still in recovery mode. A generation of young men are lost, and a nation and its young families are trying to forge a prosperous future without them. The film is centered around 16-year-old Umi – a young girl who has the responsibility of looking after the daily needs of her family, as her mother is overseas and her father was lost in the Korean war. She has an amazingly bright deposition, despite having to balance running a household and studying hard – her duties mean that the small delights of being a teenager are often lost to her. That is until she meets Shun – the vibrant and passionate editor of the school paper and fierce supporter of keeping the school’s ramshackle clubhouse from being knocked over.

While the school (and many of the pupils) believe the clubhouse is an unneeded reminder of the past, Shun believes it’s a piece of history that should be preserved and acknowledged. Shun’s passion fuels Umi, and she finds for the first time that she wants to fight for something. Umi also finds her own passion – but could the past get in the way of what her heart wants?


From Up On Poppy Hill is a details film, and it is the attention to the historical details which completely wowed me. Having lived in the area of Yokohama where the film was set, I was amazed to recognise the landscape and find familiarity in the shop frontage and school buildings. Set just before the Tokyo Olympics, this was a time when older Japanese were still struggling to recover, but the younger generation [who were among the first not to live through war] had their own opinions and dreams, and student politics had a large and enthusiastic following.

The students at the high school fighting for their clubhouse were extremely representative of this time. Hayao Miyazaki who wrote the film would have been a high school student around the same time – it’s safe to assume that the writer/director who is well-known for his strong political opinions would have been very much involved in student politics, like the young men in the film were. I absolutely loved their energy and lease on life.

Umi’s story was also a brilliant snapshot of the era. As the eldest daughter, she would have been expected to take over the duties of her absent mother and run the house. I really felt for her – no child should be shouldered with such a burden. The relationship between her and Shun was delightful, and I felt quite moved when things got a bit rocky between them. They were both such lovely people, and I was very invested in their happiness.

From Up On Popp y Hill 2

Of course being a Ghibli film, the animation cannot be faulted. I loved visiting my Japanese hometown fifty-years ago. Nature, the light, and the emotion on the characters faces – these are the distinguishing features which lift Ghibli animated films above others visually. While music is usually one of my favourite aspects of their films, I felt the some of the music in this film felt very out-of-place. For me, it was the one miss in a film full of wins.

From Up On Poppy Hill is a beautiful coming-of-age story, set in a time of change for Japan. Strong characters and a historically relevant story mean this film ranks as one of my favourite Ghibli films produced in recent times.


The Facts

Director: Goro Miyazaki
Writer(s): Hayao Miyazaki & Keiko Niwa (screenplay), Tetsuro Sayama (original story)
Runtime: 91 minutes
Release date(s): Showing now for a limited time as part of the Reel Anime festival. No date currently set for wide release in Australia

  3 Responses to “From Up On Poppy Hill”

  1. Sam: I feel with your reviews that, instead of going into detail about why you experienced certain sensations or reactions, you instead describe the corresponding elements of the film in superfluous detail that’s, frankly, rather superficial and obvious. This makes me question what you’re providing me that I couldn’t glean from an IMDB page, and what you could do to remedy that problem.

    From my experience, the best critics are the ones charting their own internal reasoning and complex emotional reactions as much as whatever they’re seeing on-screen. I think they have to, or else there’s no distinct identity for the readers to consistently gravitate back towards. You seem almost determined to thwart this, along with any sense of distinctiveness in your work, and that notion needles me as a reader.

    While I feel this way about your reviews in general, I do most keenly in this one. This was a chance for you to stretch your creative muscles and write descriptively about a subject that’s clearly essential to your identity: your affinity with the Japanese culture, and your memories of living in its most colorful regions. You do remark how familiar the setting of this film was to you, and how awed you felt because of that, but… is that really it? Were you even aware of any ties between those locations and student-union activities? Do they even exist, or are they an exaggeration, or even a fabrication? Did the film drive to research further and find out? Whatever the case, does their re-purposing from a backdrop of your cultural growth to a hotbed of youth rebellion make you re-think any conceptions you had of the place, or the culture? Does it cast any of the key events or interactions you had in a different shade? These are things I could imagine coming to you, and only you, to read about, and I’m particularly disappointed to not get that.

    Maybe you have a completely different and clear-cut idea of what your reviews should be; one that rules out these personal affectations and posits you as a clinical but authoritative voice to be trusted. Truly, I sympathise with that idea; there certainly has to be some kind of distance from the work in order to evaluate it wholly and fairly. I would honestly love to discuss it further, and I don’t mean to bring you down by saying any of this. All I’m trying to do is understand my frustration on the matter, and – as a less-than-amateur critic, aspiring director and lover of film (the latter, if nothing else) – I hope we can help each other by addressing it. Feel free to drop me an email, if that suits.

  2. Dom, I have to disagree.

    While personal experiences infused with corresponding facts about the film’s plot in a film review is always interesting and intriguing, what more could be exactly added to improve this film review? (This is in no way a dig, so please excuse some of the wording I use).

    I ask that because I am not a fan of anime, I’m really not, but having read Sam’s review and the more than articulate plot description for this film as well as comments made on the film’s quality, I have now added it to my must see list (which isn’t a very big list once you look past THE MASTER).

    Comments were made on the film’s animation, story and characters are what any review on a film like this NEEDS to contain, and they’re elaborated in enough detail to convince the person reading that the film works in these areas.

    The personal elements, yes, would make for a WONDERFUL follow-up piece for those who have seen it. However, to those who haven’t, mentioning in one sentence that you’re from that area and that it rings true is more than enough in my opinion, (someone who has no knowledge of the area and again isn’t a fan of anime). I can see you wanted more detail, but for someone (who may randomly find this review via Google) who reads through the review (yes, many do that) just interested in what the film gets right or wrong, it’s a nice touch that keeps with the flow of the rest of the review, which is concise yet satisfying as it answers the questions a film review should raise.

    I always love a review that goes into great detail, so I know precisely where you’re coming from and your comments are valid, but I have to disagree in regards to this review. It says everything that needs to be said along with enough personal touches for me to believe everything Sam is saying.

    As a follow up piece once I see it, those points you mentioned would make for a great read, but as it is, this is a damn good review which says a lot about the movie and if it’s worth our time.

    Again, this is not a dig but I just had to comment as I really dug this review.

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