Studio Ghibli is perhaps Japan’s best known animation studio with accolades and awards (including an Oscar) heaped upon Hayao Mayazaki and his team. I’m not ashamed to admit that I am a hardcore Ghibli fan, having seen most of their films (some even obsessively). Ghibli’s narratives use children or young adults as main characters who, if not exactly orphaned, are usually in some way separated from their parents. It is the world glimpsed from a child’s perspective which makes their narratives quirky and charmingly magical (My Neighbour Totoro, Spirited Away, The Cat Returns), even if the result is sometimes tragic (Graveyard of the Fireflies). Romance is used as a way of thinking about growing up and finding yourself or your place in the world (Howl’s Moving Castle, Whisper of the Heart). An interest in environmental issues is also a recurring theme (Nausisca, Pom Poko, Princess Mononoke). If some of Ghibli’s earlier films have epic dimensions then, more recently, smaller domestic scenarios seem to predominate, such as in The Borrowers and, now, From Up on Poppy Hill.
Ghibli’s latest offering is an adaptation of a comic by Chizure Takashi and Tetsurō Sayama, From Coquelicot Hill, scripted by Miyazaki and directed by his eldest son, Goro Miayazaki. Set in Yokohama before the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo, Poppy Hill follows a teenager, Umi Matsuzaki, who helps her grandmother run a lodging house while her mother is away. She falls for Shun Kazama, a senior boy at her school who writes a student newspaper; together they galvanize the student body in a successful campaign against the closure of their school clubhouse scheduled for demolition in an urban development project. Shun’s discovery of a familial connection between Umi and himself sparks some anguished and awkward moments until both discover that the connection they share is real and should not be undone. Food is always extremely important in Ghibli films and symbolises friendship and trust or a sociable familiarity. It is often used when two characters are beginning to get to know each other. In Poppy Hill, Shun gives Umi a fried fish ball to eat as if to establish a connection. Later on in the film, when the student body have finished cleaning up the club house, they all eat these little fried balls together (every time I see food in a Ghibli film I get hungry!). While the film focuses on the teenagers, main plot and subplot meet thematically over questions about the youngsters’ future: what place does the past – or the youth – have in a modern Japan and how should the young live given the absence of parenting or parents? The teenagers show that they are resilient and worthy of respect from parental (and authority) figures.
In all of Ghibli’s films there is a strong female character who makes decisions for herself. Men in the films end up looking to her, or up to her, for help. In Poppy Hill, Umi is headstrong but considerate and the student body rely on her to persuade the adults not to demolish their club house. Umi becomes a ‘mother’ to the little family in the lodging house as she cooks meals for them and cleans (Umi’s mother is also educated and has a career). It is important that Studio Ghibli provides strong heroines even if they are not always the main character in the film.
Ghibli’s traditional hand drawn animation with delicate watercolour washes is at the heart of their work; their sparse use of digital manipulation only serves to enhance the magical quality of their drawings and marks their version of manga as instantly recognisable. One could criticise Poppy Hill for their pastel-shaded chocolate box locations where everyone is, in the end, nice to each other but there are also darker tones at the edge of the film. Studio Ghibli’s world is totally immersive and From Up on Poppy Hill is a huge success..