Watching goings on at Studio Ghibli with a keen eye is always a worthwhile endeavour simply due to the position that they hold within the industry, but the gaze of fans upon the studio must surely be more focused than ever following Hayao Miyazaki's decision to retire from feature film direction. What does the future hold for a studio so clearly built around his vision? Who has what is required to pick up the reigns for such a world-renowned studio?
After the critical panning suffered (and rightly so) by Tales from Earthsea, it wouldn't be unreasonable to suspect that son Goro Miyazaki is not the man to take on his father's mantle within the animation business, but undeterred by that baptism of fire Miyazaki junior returns to the director's chair for From Up on Poppy Hill, a film based on a manga from 1980 (and admittedly still scripted by Hayao Miyazaki himself). The good news is that this film is anything but Tales from Earthsea Part 2...
Set in 1960s Japan and with many eyes looking forward towards the 1964 Tokyo Olympics (which now gives this movie an added layer of relevance given that the Olympics will be returning to Tokyo in 2020), we find ourselves in Yokohama and quickly introduced to a busy and bustling all-female household. Managing the everyday chores within this rather magnificent house without difficulty is Umi Matsuzaki, a girl who seems mature well beyond her sixteen years as she cooks and organises those who also live under this roof with consummate ease.
Sensible and mature she may be, but it's a moment of pure recklessness from a schoolmate which catches her eye, as a boy named Shun Kazama takes a leap from the roof of the school into a handily located pond in the name of protesting against the school's decision to demolish the so-called Latin Quarter, an almighty clubhouse with a rich and storied history. Shun's daring stunt ensures his infamy around the school, and despite a certain amount of dismissiveness on Umi's part even she softens to Shun as they meet properly within the ramshackle environs of the Latin Quarter.
Impressed by Shun and his comrade's efforts to save their clubhouse, Umi finds herself adding to her daily workload by helping out the school newspaper club of which he is part, and thus a friendship and beyond grows as the student's attempts to save the Latin Quarter from demolition intensify. It's a struggle that takes them right to the top of the school system (and into the midst of a rapidly redeveloping and modernising Tokyo), but for Umi and Shun questions about their respective parentage threatens to highjack any hope of their budding romance from developing further.
It's difficult to know where to start about what makes From Up on Poppy Hill such a wonderfully endearing and engaging movie. Perhaps it's the show's characters, which echo the sedate and restrained feel of the entire film but never to the point of being boring - far from it, it's a real joy to be invited this window into their lives and the era within which they live. Maybe it's the Latin Quarter itself, perhaps one of the most sumptuously animated things to ever come out of Ghibli to the point where it almost becomes a character in itself - a heaving, crowded, jam-packed hive of noise, activity and movement. Or perhaps it's simply the time and setting on the film - the 1960s is an intriguing time of transition for the country as a whole as it moves from its wartime and post-war troubles into a new era of modernity.
This final point is, beyond the love story at the forefront of the film, clearly a major area of interest that the movie wishes to focus upon - the Latin Quarter is, in essence, an example of 1960s Japan as a whole in microcosm; a place filled with youthful ideals and hope, but with a sense of cultural history that threatens to be lost as some blindly pursue progress with no attention paid to preserving a sense of that history. As I mentioned before, it's an interesting historical touchstone which echoes through to the recent award of the 2020 Olympics to Tokyo - with an ageing populace, perhaps the preparations for that event will see similar arguments resurface?
Aside from all of this, we can't ignore the subtly powerful depiction of Umi and Shun's relationship - even its dramatic moments are played with a quiet and almost serene quality that actually serves to accentuate it, and where others would go down the road of shouting and wailing or playing silly games with the whole thing From Up on Poppy Hill has a steady and calm eye that still leads us into a satisfying resolution which closes out the film.
It might not have any elements of the supernatural or fantastical to call upon, but From Up on Poppy Hill still knows where its beauty resides and wastes no time in making full use of it - both 1960s Yokohama and Tokyo are depicted with such loving care that you wish you had a time machine to hope back and take a look at that era for yourself, and I've already mentioned how their treatment of the school's Latin Quarter is an animated marvel in its own right. It goes without saying that a Studio Ghibli film looks beautiful, but this might just be amongst the studio's best works in some respects. Although the DVD edition of this STUDIOCANAL release looks decent enough, it has nothing on the Blu-Ray release which is certainly the go-to version if you want to fully appreciate the film's visual wonder.
As per our comments about its story and the way it's played out, the original Japanese cast put in some great understated performances that fit the natural feel of the film's scenes and dialogue like a glove. Thankfully, the English cast have taken their cues and do a fitting job of bringing a similarly calm treatment to the film - aside from some throwaway lines that arguably don't quite fit the era and setting of the film very well, and Shun perhaps sounding older than his youthful looks, it's a good effort with some reasonable big names attached to it that certainly does nothing to diminish what makes this movie special.
Throw in the usual slew of extras we've come to expect from most Studio Ghibli releases these days, and we have ourselves an excellent release of a truly excellent film - its subject matter alone ensures that it'll never garner the same kind of public attention as some of the studios best-known works, but for our money this is their best work in quite some time and deserves a place in any discerning collection. If From Up on Poppy Hill is anything to go by, Studio Ghibli still has a lot to offer even without Hayao Miyazaki at the directorial tiller.