Studio Ghibli is one of the mystical entities of film that, despite overseas animation peers being left to the knowledge of know-hards, has elegantly crossed over into the hearts of a general audience. From family DVD shelves to personal descriptions on dating profiles, a new Ghibli is a lure for people who wouldn’t even label themselves as cinephiles or otakus, and it’s for all the good reasons. Some, like Princess Mononoke, Totoro, Kiki`s Delivery Service and Spirited Away are the strongest examples of how fantasy narratives can encompass deeper human dramas, while others like Ponyo, Castle of Cagliostro and Porco Rosso are perfectly fine as glittering eye candy. But there are dips, none offensively so, but The Secret World of Arrietty and Tales of Earthsea are timid and dull, toothless ventures, the latter directed by Goro Miyazaki, son of legendary Hayao. Goro’s latest, a period romance From Up on Poppy Hill, is flat a out hella boring romance that must have taken forever to draw.
It’s the mid-60s, and an upcoming Olympic ceremony has Japan in a bout of optimism. The general sentiment is that, with the world coming to visit, it’s time to show off a fresh, new Japan that isn’t nostalgic for the one that participated in WWII. But the modernization has its consequences, as a beloved, decrepit high school club house, Quartier Latin, is being threatened to demolition by the school. Latin’s defending spokesman is the charismatic school paper editor, and, uhm, orphan, Shun. In an unlikely alliance, Shun is joined by the busybody Umi, who rallies students to defend the manor, in the process falling for Shun. However, a vintage photograph reveals a compromising possibility; that Shun and Umi may be long lost siblings.
The first act shows Ghibli prowess in a somewhat unfamiliar turf. Sure, seaside towns is a return trip for the studio, but From Up on Poppy Hill is set in a world completely grounded in memories of Japan’s past, with sparse glamorization. Despite an absence of spirit globs and majestic beasts, this fishing town feels rich and warm, a lovely cosy villa that could very much be lived in. Though, that said, it does feel like the reserved route feels like a missed opportunity given what uncanny wonders we’ve been given by Ghibli in the past, whimsy limited to the complicated shenanigans inside Quartier Latin. It’d all be more forgivable if not for the trudge of the second half.
After the matters of Quartier Latin are wrapped up, the film then slumps entirely on the melodramatic matter of Umi and Shun’s blood blocked romance. The two lull for each other, and the story drifts away from the once calamitous fight for the club house into this warbly pit of despair. It wouldn’t feel so hopeless, narratively, if the audience wasn’t tipped off so early on about the truth of the two’s relation, making the crawl to the conclusion a rerun of Maury you’ve already seen the DNA results for.
From Up on Poppy Hill is one of the rare Studio Ghibli films this decade that Disney took a pass on bringing overseas, and the reasons for aren’t elusive to any audience. There’s no hook and no meaningful conflict, and aside from the touching period details, it’s a story full of more dried up tears than blood or sweat. The film is a gutless romance, more akin to hundreds of other sappier anime tales of lusting than the touch of magic Ghibli wizards are renowned for.