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Sentimental realism – Miyazaki’s vision for Studio Ghibli’s ‘From Up on Poppy Hill’

Hayao Miyazaki is cemented in animation history as a legend of storytelling, providing the world with the most unique, imaginative and exciting tales incomparable to the rest. However, in the last few decades, his role within Studio Ghibli has taken a backseat, giving way for rising talent in the studio’s production of new projects. It comes to no surprise that at the helm of the new projects is Miyazaki’s son, Goro Miyazaki. Although initially hesitant in following in his father’s footsteps, the landscaper eventually entered the film industry, with a total of three films under his belt to date.

From those three, From Up on Poppy Hill (2011) has notably been a personal favourite, not just between the projects he’s been involved in, but a favourite among the decorated worlds of Studio Ghibli. This opinion is definitely unorthodox, as its truly a disbelief to compare it to the wonders of Princess Mononoke, the adoration within My Neighbour Totoro, or even Spirited Away’s charming characters.

Fortunately, Miyazaki’s creative vision for From Up on Poppy Hill made its narrative unique and fresh from previous projects. Typical Ghibli projects follow a formula which sees its story explore a completely isolated world, best put as delightful chaos. Many would consider this approach to be perfect amongst Japanese and Western animation, with a grand sense of world-building and an imaginative cast of characters that breathe life into it. Many Ghibli stories have only a layer of influence from the real world, which enables a limitless possibility to the rationale and logic for the flow of the film. This formula truly instigates raw and humane aspects to be at the heart of the story.

What makes this film feel so special is how its narrative holds historical influence and the human condition at the core of the project

However, Miyazaki’s second film outing sees its formula turned on its head, as its story has a grounded foundation of realism that shines light onto the authentic beauties of the real world. Similar to artistic approaches to realism, Miyazaki extrapolates the concept by characterising From Up on Poppy Hill using themes of everyday life and natural progression. This ultimately establishes the film as one that retains the grand imagination of Studio Ghibli, whilst portraying a story based on authentic events of optimism and pessimism.

Naturally, the design of settings and characters in most of Ghibli projects are inspired by Japanese culture. However, what makes this film feel so special in comparison, is how its narrative holds historical influence and the human condition at the core of the project. From Up on Poppy Hill is set in 1963 Japan within the port of Yokohama, where high school students Umi and Shun work to save their school’s clubhouse from demolition, whilst uncovering family secrets as they spend more time together. Although not set in Tokyo, the port of Yokohama falls victims to the effects of an evolving and globalised Japan, with it being filled with foreign bases. The highlights of the film just mentioned are essential in understanding Goro Miyazaki’s approach of realism, as it uses historical basis surrounding Japan in the 1960s.

For context, Japan in the 1960s was experiencing dramatic economic growth in the hopes of modernising the nation and rebuilding its socio-political climates following the devastations of the Second World War. Miyazaki is able to subtly integrate these significant shifts in Japanese values within the film, especially when the main characters travel to Tokyo, where the city is preparing to hold the 1964 Summer Olympics. The concept of Japanese modernisation may objectively be seen as beneficial for the nation’s long term economic efforts yet is villainised by Miyazaki to highlight the danger it holds in destroying remnants of the past and traditional livelihoods.

The inclusion of modernisation within the film distances itself from other Ghibli titles

This is further highlighted by the film’s underlying dilemma of the school clubhouse’s demolition. This centrepiece is a target as part of the large urban development plans in place for preparation of the Olympics. Miyazaki depicts this to retrospectively criticise the nation’s cultural compromise in respect to a rapidly changing post-war world. The clubhouse serves as a metaphor for cultural heritage and preservation, as Umi and Shun stand for the historical and cultural significance of the clubhouse during their studies growing up. The inclusion of modernisation within the film distances itself from other Ghibli titles and displays Miyazaki’s strengths in tackling mature themes by placing them at the forefront of his story. This film’s outing transformed personal expectations for animated projects in general, as this demonstrates the potential to integrate real-world issues into fantasy, without losing the essence of charm that’s objectively loved by everyone of all ages.

Another social commentary implemented by Goro Miyazaki is the concept of student activism which is at the forefront of From Up on Poppy Hill’s narrative. The story’s primary focus on preserving the clubhouse shares the themes of social and political activism, as the students establish a preservation committee and launch a campaign to save the clubhouse. Throughout the film, the students not only hold anti-demolition protests, but actively retaliate against the much wider issues present in a rapidly modernising nation. Umi and Shun’s protests are inspired by similar events of student activism present in the 1960s.

It’s an essential yet underplayed moment in Japanese history, which Miyazaki uses to his advantage

At the time, Japanese education systems saw the formation of ‘All-Campus Joint Struggle Committees’ which were student organisations commonly known as Zenkyōtō. These movements would challenge the government and the Japanese Communist Party, whilst also focusing on local problems using notions of humanism and existentialism as inspiration for revolution. The collective instigations of modernisation and foreign influence drove students to oppose the government’s support for the U.S. foreign policy and abolition of countryside feudal systems, as society began transitioning into a more democratic system.

It’s an essential yet underplayed moment in Japanese history, which Miyazaki uses to his advantage by prompting audiences to understand the significant impact of social movements in Japanese society. The film’s elements of a student cast and activism plotline depicts that in order to embrace the future, one must recognise the significance of preserving history in the process. In turn, this highlights the power of the youth in implementing change in a progressive and complex world.

Being the son of one of the most decorated directors of animation history is no easy task, but he is still able to fulfil the role by paving a new path

Comparatively, From Up on Poppy Hill’s familial subplot attempts to integrate the same powerful post-war consequences onto itself. The centrality of the port of Yokohama is important to Umi’s story in the film, as she raises ‘nautical signal flags’ every morning. Although these signals are used for communication between ships, Umi uses this as a coping mechanism, as a way of communicating and remembering her father who passed away as a sailor in the Korean War. Miyazaki uses this an important motif to represent the traditional ways of communicating with the dead in Japanese culture, and to highlight the film’s themes of preserving family history and traditions. Similar to the effects of a modernising Japan on a wider scale, Miyazaki still takes care into paying respect to the intimate impacts of Japan’s history, through familiar concepts of sentimental love, loss and communication – one that can truly resonate with all viewers to some degree.

Looking into the delicate details of From Up on Poppy Hill, the film truly sets a different standard in understanding core themes of the human condition, and how the history of both domestic and foreign events can impact even the smallest of lives, leaving everlasting effects on family and individuals. The film in general is representative of Goro Miyazaki and his creative insights, as its arguably his best work under the studio. Being the son of one of the most decorated directors of animation history is no easy task, but he is still able to fulfil the role by paving a new path that distinguishes itself from the charming Ghibli formula.

Even if it may not be everyone’s favourite film, it can be appreciated for its tribute to a transformative period in Japan’s history, and how Miyazaki accommodates for viewers from all walks of life by giving sentimental reflections of realism. From Up on Poppy Hill is not the best Ghibli film by any means, but by being one of the few to be grounded in the real-world, it opens a new path of inspiration for new stories that remind viewers of important histories that shape the world we live in today.

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