ANIME & MANGA - Review
09:24 - 6th November 2013, by Andrew Osmond

From Up on Poppy Hill

In Studio Ghibli's newest film, boy meets girl in the harbour town of Yokohama in 1963. Their first encounter is when Umi - a rather prim, serious girl with a private sadness - sees the boy, Shun, leap off their school's dilapidated clubhouse and splosh into a swimming pool below. Umi starts to haul him out, then sees him beam at the cameras - their classmates have instantly declared the two a couple! - and indignantly dunks him back in again. Naturally, that's only the start of their acquaintance.

As you'd expect, this is a teen love story, with plenty of gentle comedy (though the swimming pool bit is about as broad as it gets). It also has lots of scenes of motivated schoolkids working together for a shared aim - to save the clubhouse. The boys have turned it into their giant den, and treasure the building for its continuity with the generations who went before. (Not to mention its stacks of old exam papers, which can come in very handy for guessing what the teachers will set them this year!)

The film also has lots of scenes of Umi being industrious, preparing food, and being useful in her household (she lives in her grandma's hilltop house with her siblings and boarders). People are instinctively polite, neighbourly and co-operative. The film has sweet, often understated moments when Umi and Shun are either buttoning up their feelings or else releasing them. Even these moments of release are polite and decorous - it's hard not to think of Blighty's own "Stiff Upper Lip" attitude - but there's a relief and weight behind them.
What the film does not have is any physical conflict, or bad guys, or magic animals, or flying. There is a conflict, but - and we're skating around spoilers here - it's an internal one, involving the youngsters' heads and hearts. Umi and Shun themselves are admirable and sympathetic, without being striking or memorable. They're not feisty and funny like the more modern teen couple in Whisper of the Heart - still the benchmark for Ghibli's non-fantasy romances - or the brawn-and-brain boys in the recent Kids on the Slope. Viewers may find the latter TV show more 'cinematic' than Poppy Hill; it's certainly way more rambunctious.

This sounds like we're going to knock Poppy Hill; we're not. It's clear from reviews that many people find it dull and bland, and that's very understandable. But Poppy Hill knows what it's doing; it's presenting a style of living and an attitude to living, and suggesting they're still relevant 50 years on. Shun and Umi are rather obvious symbols of the film's ethos, but at the same time, they have enough life and breath that they never resemble mannequins. (At one point, Shun laughs theatrically like the father in Totoro's bathtub scene; a scene between Umi and her mother is exquisitely tender.)

Poppy Hill, like the recent Arrietty, is a small Ghibli film, interested in implicit themes and connections. Arrietty contrasted the ways that different male characters appeared to a budding adolescent girl, and was surprisingly frank about her subjective sexual awakening. Poppy Hill has a plot twist that could have been melodramatic and scandalous, but instead makes it into a wider point instead about valuing who you are and where you came from. Whether you find this enjoyable is very much a matter of taste; but anyone with a deeper interest in Studio Ghibli's themes should find the film interesting.

This release includes the GKids English dub, varying from good to excellent. There are some very funny inserted lines, though the 'strained' voices of the kids when their relationship is tested sound rather off.

Another small Ghibli film, telling a modest story with refinement and charm. It succeeds very well at what it does, though many Ghibli fans would have preferred it to do something else, and bigger.
SCORE: 4/5
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