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It’s been particularly interesting going through the Studio Ghibi films directed by people other than co-founders Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata for two reasons: it’s a good way to focus on movies that don’t get enough attention, and it allows us to see which of these “apprentice directors,” for lack of a better word, have the potential to become a master in their own right.

By 2010, there had only been four Ghibli features directed by other people, and while I feel like The Secret World of Arrietty was the best of these, it was only truly great because it felt like a Hayao Miyazaki movie. The 2011 feature, From Up on Poppy Hill, definitely feels more like a Takahata movie, even though it was co-scripted by Hayao Miyazaki, and directed by Gorō Miyazaki.

After the tumultuous relationship between father and son during Gorō’s first directorial effort (Tales from Earthsea), it seems the elder Miyazaki wanted to give his son another, fairer chance for success. Gorō, who never really aspired to be a filmmaker, doesn’t have his father’s eye for wonderment, but he does solid work. While Earthsea had great visuals, it suffered a bit in the story department — Poppy Hill is much more nostalgic and contemplative, which seems to suit the strengths of its director. Set in the early ’60s in Yokohama, it’s a film about searching for answers and taking a stand for what you believe in.


It’s perhaps unfair to say it feels more like a Takahata movie than anything else, but the evidence is there. Most of Takahata’s work, and certainly all of it for Ghibli, deals with family and life in Japan through the eyes of young people during formative years. There are similarities to Grave of the Fireflies visually, and most of the story deals with what happened back during both WWII and the Korean Conflict. However, there’s always an air of sadness in Takahata’s movies, or at least contemplation (I mean, Fireflies is one of the saddest movies I’ve ever seen), and that’s been replaced here by pleasantness and melodrama. Nothing wrong with that, but it lacks in emotional depth.


Umi is a 16-year-old girl living in Yokohama in 1963. Her mother is a medical professor teaching in the United States and her father died on a ship during the Korean Conflict. As such, she basically runs the house and takes care of her two younger siblings and her grandmother. Every morning, she raises a series of signal flags which profess “I pray for safe voyages.” Later, a poem is published in the school newspaper about seeing the flags from sea, and its author — a boy named Shun, a member of the journalism club — meets Umi, but makes a pretty bad first impression. She eventually meets him again when her sister wants the poet’s autograph in Quartier Latin, a dilapidated building that houses the high school’s clubs, and is much more impressed. She ends up helping with the newspaper along with Shiro, the head of the student government, and eventually Shun proposes they work to renovate and fix up the building, which is in danger of being demolished.


As you might expect, the more Umi and Shun hang out, the more they start liking each other; it’s the same old story. One night, Umi shows Shun a photograph of three men, taken during WWII. One of the men is her father. Shun goes home where he looks at his copy of the same photo. He asks his father why he’d have a picture of Umi’s father and he’s told that Umi’s father brought Shun to them shortly after WWII and asked them to adopt the boy — they’d lost their own infant son recently. Shun goes to the registrar’s office and finds that he is listed under Umi’s family name. After being distant, Shun eventually tells Umi the fact that they might be brother and sister. Uhh…gross?


After the renovation of the clubhouse is done, and the students are filled with pride, they learn that the building is still set to be demolished by a land developer. Shun, Umi, and Shiro travel to Tokyo plead with the developer not to tear down the building. As the man is an alum of the high school, he agrees to come take a look before making a decision. As the whole school gets ready to persuade the developer to keep their clubhouse, Shun and Umi do some digging about whether Shun actually is related to her, which is made even more awkward when they profess their love for each other, even if they end up being siblings.


Obviously there’s more to the story that I’m not going to describe, but I think you get the picture. The movie is melodramatic. It feels more CW-y than most anything else Ghibli has done. Even though Whisper of the Heart deals with a blossoming young romance, it feels a lot more grounded in reality. And, you know, come to think of it, that movie had the two leads not like each other at first, and also had the girl not like the boy, not realizing he’s actually the anonymous guy she’d been crushing on based on his school-related work. WOW, Hayao Miyazaki really ripped himself off in the writing department. Anyway, the story works well enough and the characters are likable without standing out too much.


What does really work for the movie are the visuals, naturally. Even more than the fantasy realms of Earthsea, the detail of all the seaside homes and the ships and the sunset looks truly gorgeous. The lengthy shots of Shun and Umi riding a bike around town is abundantly pleasant, almost eliciting a contented sigh from me. When they go to Tokyo, they see all of the structures being built for the 1964 Summer Olympics, and any one of those shots could be a painting hanging in a gallery. And, in a lot of ways, the movie is like a painting, remembering the past fondly, vividly depicted, but without much engagement otherwise.


Ultimately, From Up on Poppy Hill is nice but easily forgettable. It got mostly positive reviews (83% on Rotten Tomatoes) and did quite well. That’s basically it; Gorō Miyazaki redeemed himself from his earlier critical disappointment, and he went on to direct the new CG-animated, cel-shaded Ghibli television series Ronia the Robber’s Daughter, even though if you watch the wonderful documentary In the Kingdom of Dreams and Madness, chronicling the making of Hayao Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises, Goro seems completely uninterested in making another anything in animation. He’s an odd man.

Next week, we’ll finish Ghibli Bits by talking about the, to-date, final in-house feature film made by Studio Ghibli, the Oscar-nominated When Marnie Was There, as well as talk about the future of its director. Until then!

Images: Studio Ghibli/GKIDS

Kyle Anderson is the Associate Editor for Nerdist. He’s the writer of Studio Ghibli retrospectives Miyazaki Masterclass, Takahata Textbook, and Ghibli Bits. Follow him on Twitter!

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