Thursday, April 25, 2013

From Up on Poppy Hill

I've never been a big fan of Japanese anime.  I don't know why except at some irrational level, I associate anime with children's programming.  Growing up, I recall watching various anime.  My favorite was Battle of the Planets which was the American adaptation of the Japanese series Science Ninja Team Gatchaman.  BOTP used the Japanese anime from SNTG but dubbed over with the voices of Casey Kasem and Ronnie Schnell among other.  It was also heavily edited as explicit violence and even transgender elements were excised.

That was a nice trip down memory lane but doesn't fully explain why I'm mild about Japanese anime 30 years after watching BOTP.  At some level, it may also be that Japanese anime has become too popular for my liking.  When the poseurs arrive, I head for the exits.  I won't belabor the point because after watching From Up on Poppy Hill, I may have turned the corner on Japanese anime.

From Up on Poppy Hill; animation; directed by Gorō Miyazaki; Japanese with subtitles; (2011) - Official Website

I saw From Up on Poppy Hill at the Landmark Embarcadero Cinemas.  I saw the subtitled version but they are also screening the dubbed version.  Check listings for more information.

My late mother was Japanese.  Generations of her family have lived and still live in Yokohama.  We moved from Japan in 1971.  From Up on Poppy Hill (FUoPH) is set in 1963 Yokohama.  My parents were living in Yokohama at the time; I wasn't alive yet.  Based largely on this tenuous connection to the film (along with positive reviews), I decided to see FUoPH.

FUoPH is a Studio Ghibli film.  Studio Ghibli is the only Japanese animation studio I can name.  Studio Ghibli was co-founded by Hayao Miyazaki whose son, Gorō, directed FUoPH.


Umi is a teenage girl living in Yokohama.  Her family's house has been converted into a boarding house since her father is dead and her mother is studying in the US.  She is a very responsible teenager.  She cooks breakfast and generally is the surrogate mother for her two younger sisters and two boarders.

Every morning Umi runs signal flags up a flagpole in her yard.  She can see the ships and boats in Tokyo Bay from her house.  Her father was a sailor and the flags continue a tradition Umi had with her father despite the fact that he is dead and no one may be noticing the flags.  In fact, Shun a classmate of Umi sees the flags daily as he rides his father's tugboat to Yokohama.

At school, Umi becomes attracted to Shun, who is also the charismatic editor of the school's newspaper.  The cause célèbre is the closing of the Latin Quarter or an old building next to their high school which serves as the student union hall.  The dilapidated building is slated for demolition.  The Latin Quarter has become a boys club and the ramshackle appearance scares off girls.  Umi organizes the girls in the class to help clean and renovate the building to show the administrators that the building is useful and valued by the students.

In a parallel plot line, Umi & Shun's attraction becomes apparent to both.  While visiting her house, Umi shows an old photo of his father and two other sailors.  Shun, the adopted son of a tugboat captain, recognizes the photo because his parents have told him that one of the men in the photo is his biological father.  Unfortunately for Umi, it's her father who is identified as Shun's father.  Shun's awkwardly tries to avoid Umi but eventually tells her his reasons and Umi is devastated.  Not only is her first crush her half-brother but it calls into question the honor of her father's memory.

At this juncture, Umi's mother returns from the US.  When Umi asks about Shun's parentage, her mother reveals that Shun's father is another man in the photo who died shortly after Shun was born.  Shun's mother died during childbirth.  Umi's father did not want his friend's son to go to an orphanage so he claimed to be the boy's father and arranged for Shun to be placed with Shun's adoptive parents since Umi was close to being born.

The Shun, Umi & a third student visit the CEO of the company that is planning to develop the land the Latin Quarter sits.  The CEO is an alumni of the school and after taking a shine to Umi, agrees to visit the Latin Quarter.  Meanwhile, Umi still has doubts about her mother's account of Shun's birth.

The CEO's visit is a success.  He is so impressed with the Latin Quarter than he agrees to cancel the planned development.  Meanwhile, Umi & Shun get word that the third sailor in the photo is on a ship in Yokohama Bay and wants to meet with them.  He confirms Umi's mother's story & tells them about his youth with their respective fathers.


FUoPH is a gentle film about teenage life and the modernization of Japan in the lead up to the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.  The song Sukiyaki by Kyu Sakamoto is featured prominently in the soundtrack.  I remember that song among my parents' record collection.

There is a sequence at the beginning where Umi wakes up and begins her routine day which includes raising the flags and making breakfast.  Without dialogue, I found it fascinating and not least of why was that it reminded me of the way my mother used to wash the rice before cooking it.  Masami Nagasawa is the voice actress behind Umi but it was the animation which conveyed much of the loneliness and angst Umi was feeling as well as her attraction to Shun.

Having visited Yokohama, I recall the hilly, terraced plots of land, winding streets and other landmarks depicted in the film.  Although I usually like my films grittier, this film (very Japanese in its outlook on life) definitely touched me.  How much was due to my family's connection to the film's time and setting is debatable.  The innocence of youth is fertile ground for the Japanese with their school uniforms and class spirit.  It's a thin line dividing nostalgic memories of youth with the Japanese subculture fascinated with "kowaii."  FUoPH stayed on the "right" side of the line.  FUoPH was a heartwarming film.


The PFA is having a Studio Ghibli series this summer.  Titled Castles in the Sky: Masterful Anime from Studio Ghibli, the program runs from June 16 to August 25.  I hope to see some of the films in the series.

From Up on Poppy Hill
©2011 Chizuru Takahashi - Tetsuro Sayama - GNDHDDT

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