Nostalgia has always been an unwieldy weapon in the cinematic arsenal. Sidling constantly between the deferential and the saccharine, only truly skilled directors and filmmakers are able to parse the dense miasma of memory and feeling, peeling away the unnecessary with the phenomenological equivalent of Occam’s Razor. What’s left, if properly executed, is an homage not entirely of fiction and not entirely of reality, reconciling the mnemonic and the pathos into an image of a place rent directly from the ether of human perception. The new film of director Goro Miyazaki, From Up on Poppy Hill, meets and exceeds the challenge of properly interpreting Japan at a very affecting time in the collective Japanese consciousness: the early sixties. Though created and intended for a Japanese audience, the experience communicated through the visuals and narrative are so emotionally resonant that this film manages to evoke a universal nostalgia transcendent of cultural and national heritage.
From Up on Poppy Hill concerns the residents of Yokohama in 1963, in particular a group of schoolkids trying to save a dilapidated building on their school grounds. The early sixties existed as one of, if not the only, pastorals in Japan’s twentieth century. Speaking on the epoque in an interview with LA Times, Miyazaki states, “You have the terrible period of World War II, and that was followed by chaos. The period we’re talking about here is right before economic growth, and that was the brief moment in Japan when people were able to enjoy a relative time of peace and calmness.” Such a focused (and real) setting is a marked departure for Studio Ghibli (aka the Dreamworks of Japan). Renowned for the likes of Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, and Howl’s Moving Castle (bt dubs, all favorites of mine — I nerded out hard when Poppy Hill got thrown my way), Studio Ghibli’s filmography is distinguished by fantastical settings, anthropomorphic creatures, and aside from Princess Mononoke (dying boar god!), a wide-eyed, sprawling naivete that makes you feel like you’re twelve again. One of the most laudable feats of From Up on Poppy Hill is the film’s ability to interpret the feelings and sentiments of 1963 Japan and render them through the playfully surreal Ghibli-scope, holding the atmosphere through the entire film.
The story intertwines a mythic but accessible portrayal of young love with a social commentary on reconciliation between the old and the new. Above all, Miyazaki manages to treat these two elements holistically and amalgamates the narratives into an experience of memory and feeling. The lives of Umi (Sarah Bolger) and Shun (Anton Yelchin), two sixteen year-olds who spearhead the movement to save the rotting club house (which moreso resembles a haunted house), act as the catalysts to the film and the drawing points. The only aspect of the film my deeply rooted cynicism prodded me into smirking at (for just a little bit) is the development of the relationship between these two characters (think George Michael and Maebe, but I’ll let you find out for yourself). However, I managed to dismiss my English Lit discussions on Philip Roth and my snarky-ass ways; their story is the type that lingers with you for awhile, all glowy on the inside.
The film also poses an interesting challenge straight from the director to the audience, namely the younger one. When speaking in an interview with Ghibli France, Miyazaki said the youth of Japan “Need to find a balance between the old things and the new things.” Considering Japan’s place in the world as the neon-clad harbinger of the modern and its tragic history (the 2011 earthquake delayed work on the film for weeks), a society rooted in reverence for predecessors and history is currently in something of a willful state of cultural amnesia, apt to forget even yesterday. From Up on Poppy Hill may be a most ardent case for reason to revisit the past.
The imagery and soundtrack themselves are a marvel. I recently discovered that jazz was huge in Japan during the sixties after watching Shinichiro Watanabe’s — creator of cult anime Cowboy Bebop) — newest series, Kids on the Slope. Poppy Hill’s score steeps the film in everything from chipper swings reminiscent of Art Blakey, to big-band jazz-esque romps in the action-heavy scenes, to Japanese do-wop. This fluid melange of sound from the era blends seamlessly with the lush, hand-drawn animation Studio Ghibli is renowned for. When asked about the French elements of the film and the use of “poppies” in the title in an interview with Ghibli France, Miyazaki said “The poppies were already in the original work, but to me poppies equal France. In Japan they’re the image we have of Provence and even of the paintings of the Impressionists.” These comparisons are not unmerited. The mind-numbing blend of hundreds of shades of blue in the ever-present background of the sea (a silent character through the entire film) is art worth appreciation and consideration itself. The muted tungsten glows of the shops, the verdancy of the cliffs and fields — all of the scenery steals your attention from the plot from time to time. It’s like an active painting for an hour and a half, and you don’t even have to listen to your art history major significant other talk about Cézanne.
In the same way French-Iranian artist Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis drew its power from an ability to take a cultural experience and heritage so personal and arbitrary and translate those memories into a universal experience, From Up on Poppy Hill reinterprets the specificity of feeling of 1963 Japan, making the time accessible to any audience. After this film, I’ll always remember what I felt when I was sixteen in Yokohama.