I had a bit of trepidation going into From Up on Poppy Hill, the new movie by Goro Miyazaki, roughly the same amount as if I were walking into a minefield or going on a date. The reason for this is that despite being the son of anime legend Hayao Miyazaki, Goro’s last movie, Tales From Earthsea was, and I’m being charitable here, pretty damn bad. But hey, everyone deserves a second chance, I figured, so why not give it a chance?
Well, I’ll tell you why not.
The film is a period teen romance/slice of life movie, set in 1960s Yokohama. The main character is Umi, a girl living in her family’s boarding house overlooking the port.
Umi strikes up a friendship and nervous romance with Shun, a member of her school’s journalism club and a key member in a group campaigning to prevent the demolition of the school clubhouse, a cluttered old house full of so many colorful characters and slapdash interior renovations that it was giving me serious flashbacks to the hotel from The Great Muppet Caper. Umi joins the effort to save the clubhouse, called the Quartier Latin by the students for no reason the film gives, and soon gets the other girls from the school to help out, leading to more romance with Shun and the inevitable clean-up montage, which I could feel approaching like the inevitable march of death.
Oh, but there’s a twist, because of course there’s a twist. Honestly I was begging for a twist.
The first act or so is so picturesque, slice-of-life, “look at us all being happy and productive and exchanging furtive glances and sharing bike rides along the coast I hope nothing goes wrong” that the movie might as well also remind us it only has two days left till retirement and a kid on the way. And if I’m going to discuss the movie in any detail there’s gonna have to be some SPOILERS so here ye be warned.
Partway through the film Shun learns that he and Umi are in fact brother and sister, or at least all evidence points to it, putting the kibosh on their romance, unless the film wants to go the Tromeo and Juliet route, but somehow I doubt that. Rather than do the logical thing and tell her right away, Shun opts instead to just ignore her for a while, only telling her when she confronts him about the cold shoulder, something that didn’t exactly endear him to me.
The majority of the second act then is them desperately fighting their incestuous romantic tension. And YES, it’s creepy and uncomfortable, especially since toward they decide “fuck it” and to declare their totally non-platonic love for each other anyway.
Perhaps if it had been handled in a more mature and serious tone, this would have come across better, but the scene where Shun drops this bombshell on Umi is set to this quasi-cheerful, lighthearted piece of music that sounds like something that plays in an elevator, and I literally said aloud “This is entirely the wrong music to set to the scene where your lead couple learn they’re directly related, Goro Miyazaki”.
Now this is probably a cultural thing, and maybe the tone with which the movie handles the whole incest-scare plot isn’t as unsettlingly “off” in Japan. But I’m not in Japan, and from where I’m sitting, the whole thing feels bafflingly mishandled. And no, that one shot of them squeezed together in a cramped elevator didn’t help, either.
Maybe it’d be less easy to harp on this if anything else in the movie really stuck out. Besides the incest-scare plot, when I look back on the movie, I have this distinct memory of nothing really happening.
Oh sure, there are scenes in which people do things, but the film doesn’t have much in the way of tension. The whole plot with the clubhouse gets resolved by a trip to Tokyo and Umi telling a suit how her father died in the Korean war, and even the incest plot is tied up in a quick, easy bow by a boat ride and a chat with a character we’ve never met before.
The characters don’t really grow, or learn anything, and at the end of the movie they’re more or less the same people they were at the start. Sure, they go through some hardships, but every conflict gets taken care of by someone else telling them “oh, it’s fine, you’re all good.”
Fixing up the clubhouse is a fun and easy montage, and every other hurdle they overcome is overcome -for- them with minimal effort on their part. Even after Umi and Shun decide to give in to their feelings despite their shared parentage, that problem gets solved before they have any other significant scenes together. We never see them living with the choice they made or facing the consequences of their actions, they just decide to do it (and no, I don’t mean “do it” they don’t so much as kiss, thank God) just in time for it to turn out to be alright anyway.
Nobody in the film really achieves anything. Even the various kooky clubhouse members have their problems solved by a parade of schoolgirls coming in to spearhead the clean-up initiative.
Everyone has the solution to their problems handed to them, and that’s not interesting, that’s just watching a bunch of people have everything go their way. Nobody grows, nobody makes a difficult choice and deals with the consequences, everything just works out. Nobody makes mistakes, let alone learns from them, or has any kind of character arc. As a result, the ending feels like an unsatisfying conclusion to not so much a story as a series of things that happen.
When From Up on Poppy Hill isn’t uncomfortable, it’s dull. Even without their total lack of growth or any kind of real struggle, the characters all feel one-dimensional. The cloying soundtrack, which often seems to be competing with whatever is happening in the scene with up-tempo Jazz or monstrously inappropriate elevator music, makes the film feel too desperate to come off as charming and fun, like someone from the Neutral Planet from Futurama putting on a floral dress and big straw hat.
But I am quite aware when I am being hornswoggled, Goro Miyazaki, I have my horn swaoggled regularly, and with more skill than this.