After seeing From Up on Poppy Hill last night, I wanted to secure a copy of the 1980 Takahashi Chizuru manga on which it was based. No luck, as no English-translated versions exist anywhere, legit or otherwise. Fortunately, Sgt. Tanuki wrote this very helpful blog post detailing the differences between the manga and the Studio Ghibli film.
Interestingly, it is Hayao Miyazaki's change of setting to 1963 Tokyo, the coming Tokyo Olympic Games looming as a marker of Japan's rebirth in the modern world, that is the largest change. A nation, and its people, caught in the fault line between history and modernity - this is the quintessential theme of the Studio Ghibli films.
Despite that, Sgt Tanuki highlights some criticisms that resonate with me:
Taken on its own terms, it's an utterly typical shōjo manga. Average. I guess I mean that as both a pejorative and a mere descriptor. That is, I don't find the manga really remarkable in any way; but there's a certain value in reading unremarkable works, too, because they help you appreciate the excellent ones.
The art: it's undistinguished. Very few compositions struck me as being memorable or arresting. At the same time it's obviously using the visual vocabulary of girls' comix circa 1980 in typical way: the flowers, the floating-in-space emotional moments, the dizzy-angle closeups of eyes, mouths, etc. It's kind of a primer on the genre.
The story: same. Puppy love presented with an accent on beautiful boys just out of reach, and the endless internal sufferings of a girl in love. Just enough complications to keep the plot going, and a resolution just in time to bring tears to your eyes. (Theoretically.)
Read in terms of the movie, however, it's fascinating, precisely because Ghibli was able to make such a deeply resonant movie out of such average source material. They kept the basic outlines of the story (Mer and Kazama's relationship, the boarding house, the school), but changed the setting from "contemporary" (in 1980 the manga was set in 1980) to "past," and thus the tone from up-to-the-minute (in the manga the boys all have Shaun Cassidy long hair) to nostalgic. Furthermore they drew out the emotional, almost mythic power of the dad-lost-at-sea motif.
I'm not yet sure where I stand on the movie. I'll have to watch again, this time with the Japanese soundtrack, before deciding where I stand. My feelings so far? Impressed by the art direction and design, but often frustrated, and surprisingly bored. Goro Miyazaki continues to improve and disappoint in equal measure. But perhaps I wasn't in the right frame of mind? I'll give it another go before making any formal declarations.