In an increasingly modern and individualistic world, people often downplay who they are and where they come from. Who your parents are, who raises you, where you come from: these things define your past and can often control how you act in the present. From Up on Poppy Hill is a story that reminds us it’s never too early to look back.
The youthful leads of the film both cling to their past amid a generation of kids looking for the new. Shun (Jun’ichi Okada) is one of the young boys boldly leading a movement to preserve the ancient clubhouse amid a cry of popular opinion to level the clubhouse to build a new one. Umi (Masami Nagasawa) begins encountering this young man after she tries to investigate a poem written about the flags she raises every morning in remembrance of her father.
On one level, From Up on Poppy Hill is a film that looks back at the past as a place. Set in the ‘60s, the film’s wonderful soundtrack is filled with songs from the era. While the story is based on a manga series written in the late ‘70s, it’s adaptation into film enriches the themes. The film medium is able to use use sight and sound to reconstruct a place that no longer exists. Furthermore, film is a potent form to convey memory which makes it an ideal way to adapt this story and accentuate the themes of the past.
Furthermore, since From Up on Poppy Hill is animated, it’s able to conjure up the place in a more creative way. The film boasts some richly drawn and detailed backdrops, showing care for rendering the right look and feel of place. At the same time, Studio Ghibli is able to also conjure up a timeless feel leaving just enough generalities in the animation to visually represent how stories are timeless truths. This can be most seen in the blurring of urban and rural space in the titular Poppy Hill, which feels like a place frozen in time amid a world crashing into progress.
One of the flaws of Goro Miyazaki’s Tales from Earthsea was how late some of the exposition came. From Up on Poppy Hill also feels the need to delve into the past later in the film, but here it fits into the fabric of the film and also brings to light many aspects of present events.
Umi leads a charge to preserve the clubhouse by restoring it. As Shun and Umi slowly grow closer together, they begin to realize that the past is not just something to be preserved. Yes, it is important to remember our heritage, but the past can also shape our future and our happiness. And, if we let it, the fear of the past can control us into mistreating, hurting and abusing others.
Through it all, we must remember to move forward. Yes, the past shapes us, but we shouldn’t let us control us. In the film’s most elegant movement, it doesn’t buck the past. The characters don’t move on and let go of the past. The past still happens, we take it forward with us, but we work through its pains in the hope of a brighter future.
Many of Studio Ghibli’s films look back at the past with nostalgia or longing. Here, the past is laced with both good and bad. It is what it is and we are who we are because of it. The complexity of this approach means that From Up on Poppy Hill does not have as many moments of wonder as films like My Neighbor Totoro or Only Yesterday. Instead, it builds itself around ideas and movements that take time to reach fruition. It refrains from romanticizing the past. Instead it tells a story about the importance of remembrance with the hope that this knowledge will take us forward to a place worth going.
© 2013 James Blake Ewing