Thursday, November 14, 2013

Anime Review: From Up on Poppy Hill

FROM UP ON POPPY HILL: Different storytelling compared to other Studio Ghibli films

Umi Matsuzaki lives in a small district by a seaport. Every morning, she raises a set of signal flags to commemorate her father’s death at sea. One day, the school newspaper president Shun Kazama witnesses the raising of the flags and publishes a poem about it in the school paper. Soon enough, this proves to be the beginning of their friendship and looming romantic interest. However, it’s not that simple, as the story of the death of Umi’s father subtly connects and disconnects them at the same time.

I don’t understand why this Studio Ghibli film is considered mediocre by those who are used to the studio’s works, maybe because this is more of a Slice of Life anime. It lacks the fantastical elements of other Ghibli films. But I don’t think that’s a good enough reason to dismiss it as mediocre. In fact, From Up on Poppy Hill has a storytelling style that, as far as I’ve seen, hasn’t been done by Miyazaki before.

The story has two interweaving plotlines -- the personal lives of Umi and Shun and the seemingly controversial account of the school’s clubhouse. These two stories alternately develop, and there are even instances that both develop at the same time. Take note that neither is a subplot. Both are the backbone of From Up on Poppy Hill.

The clubhouse

Another thing that makes this film different from other Ghibli films is its overall atmosphere. It’s just a feel-good story. But it does completely turn into a rollercoaster ride of emotions halfway through. The point is, it’s not like other Ghibli films that bombard us with symbolism and subtle commentaries. The story is direct, and it doesn’t pretend to be more than that.

But the storytelling is not perfect. The narration at the beginning is unnecessary. It’s a poor attempt at exposition. Show me. Don’t tell me. (I watched the English Dub by the way, and I’m not sure if this narration is also embedded in the original Japanese.) Another problem is the lack of twists and turns. As I said earlier, the story is very direct.

In terms of characterization, there is not much in From Up on Poppy Hill. I’m not saying that they’re bad. None of them just seems to be memorable. Umi and Shun are the only characters that have a good amount of screen time. The others feel more like background characters whose only purpose is to give the impression that Umi and Shun actually live in society. I have no problem with the background characters though, because they’re not relevant to the story the film wants to tell anyway.

It’s also to be expected for the animation to do well, since this film is relatively newer than other Ghibli films. The portrayal of the setting is very admirable. This might sound exaggerated, but I could smell the salty scent of the sea while watching. As for the music, it’s successful on giving this feel-good impression in the first half of the film and emotional impression in the second half. The main theme is also quite catchy.

Overall, I think From Up on Poppy Hill doesn’t deserve to be overlooked as a Studio Ghibli film. Sure, it is very different compared to the studio’s other works. But I don’t think this difference should be translated as mediocrity. If anything, it should be translated as uniqueness.

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  1. Never heard of From Up on Poppy Hill until now. However, I will be sure not to overlook the film. I am not sure why, but I believe anime does teen romance (and often romance in general) better than live action. While both genres have bad iterations of romance storylines, I enjoy it more in anime, just a more general thought.


    1. Yeah, From Up on Poppy Hill is not as widely recognized as the other Studio Ghibli works, probably because it's not directed by Hayao Miyazaki himself. I believe it was his son? And this film is not just about romance, mind you. It's a good story of family too.