Feeling Conflicted About Poppy Hill

From Up on Poppy Hill

Animator and writer Michael Sporn is feeling slightly conflicted about his critical review of From Up on Poppy Hill.

I think of Ponyo riding those waves of the Tsunami. My heart – my entire body lifted in exuberance with that scene. No matter how many times I’ve seen the film it always does it.  I think of Spirited Away (so many moments) where Chihiro rides on that ghost train with “No Name” to the dark foreign and silent land of Yubaba, Zeniba’s twin sister. I think of Princess Mononoke when the god of the forest, dressed like a deer stands watching him from across the lake. It’s so glorious a moment. Or one of my all time favorite moments in the movies – standing at the bus stop with Totoro in the rain waiting for the bus to arrive. It doesn’t get better than that in film.

There are so many other Ghibli moments for me, I could keep going. Yet not even a hint of any of these in Poppy Hill. Maybe that’s why I felt I was so negative. I wanted something I shouldn’t have expected from a sophomore director without the proper experience to play out that very complex relationship between him and the girl. It becomes cliché when it should have torn at our hearts.

I completely understand and agree with your sentiments. My first viewing at the Uptown Theater was a frustrating disappointment. Perhaps I just wasn’t in the best mood, and like you, I feel a great desire to WANT to like this movie. Goro Miyazaki, after all, is the presumptive heir apparent to the studio. He’s being groomed to inherit the family business from his father, and despite his lack of experience, they’re working their hardest to help him grow into the director’s role.

But it always comes back to that simple fact – Goro Miyazaki has no experience as a filmmaker, a storyteller, or an animator. I will gladly agree that Poppy Hill is much better than Earthsea (a very low standard indeed), but the movie was still lacking passion, lacking vision. It was a dutiful son punching in his time card and doing a very respectable, if uninspiring, job.

I have a "copy" of the Japanese Blu-Ray (ahem), but I still haven’t summoned the energy to watch again. I feel as though I’m making excuses, trying to find a reason to like this movie and give it a favorable review. Sigh, it’s like I’m writing for GamePro Magazine all over again.  When you're telling yourself that you must "like something," it becomes dishonest, to myself and to others.  I want to see a good movie, despite all evidence, therefore a "good" movie appears before my eyes.  Believing is Seeing.

It’s interesting to note that Ghibli’s best animators (including the great director Yoshiyuki Momose, the true heir apparent) were working on the animated “film” for Ni no Kuni, the Playstation 3 video game. I’d like to see those animated scenes compiled and shared online, if only to compare to Poppy Hill’s presentation. I also think this movie is very Japanese, and much of the nostalgia and reflections on their post-war generation won’t speak to us. This setting, in the looming shadow of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, was Hayao Miyazaki’s key change from the original source material (a 1980 girls’ romance comic); the role of Japan's post-war generation, caught between tradition and the modern world, is arguably the great theme of his directorial career. Younger Goro doesn’t have that life experience, and so we don’t get those key insights, those little details, that we cherish so much in Miyazaki’s and Takahata’s films. Compare Poppy Hill to Mimi/Whisper and Omohide Poro Poro, and you’ll see that difference all too clearly.

I have no idea if Goro has greatness within him; I’m not even sure he wants the job. He’s fulfilling the role of the dutiful son, hoping this will bring him closer to his estranged father, or at least understand the man. But he doesn’t have any of his father’s passions or obsessions. Father Miyazaki was traumatized by war, raised among the ruins of a destroyed nation, and dreamed of drawing comic books and flying.

What makes Goro-san tick? He appears to be highly intelligent, very thoughtful, a peaceful man who would rather cultivate gardens or design architecture. I don’t know how he turns those passions into storytelling. And I don’t think he knows, either.  His voice has yet to emerge, and he must also emerge from the shadow of his famous father.  And the clock is ticking.  A daunting challenge, indeed.

Anyway, I’m sorry for rambling and taking up so much space. But I’m still shook up over Roger Ebert’s passing, and it’s good to talk about the movies with folks who understand.


Unknown said...

I loved "From Up On Poppy Hill", to me it was a really beautiful movie.
I really believe that you had very big expectations from Goro Miyazaki, but I think he is really a good director. He is just different, don't expect him to be exactly like Hayao Miyazaki (who is a genius!). I find much bitterness and dissapointment in your post, to me you were really expecting to see a masterpiece so it let you down. But believe me if you ever watch again with a clear mind without expectation, you'll find, From Up On Poppy Hill much more interesting than you find it now. Personally, I found the girls and boys trials to save the "Latin Quarter as well as the love story between the two main characters to be really unique. I can sense in this film a nostalgia and respect for the older generation and those past days of our grand-grandfathers and it really does potray that very beautifully. So what I say is that you should at least try to give it another go, without expecting this to be anything.

joe muszynski said...

I have now seen “From Up On Poppy Hill” twice and am mystified as to where these reactions are coming from. If I read this right, one problem being explained is that there is “no Ghibli moment.” Honestly, what does that mean? The examples given are very iconic moments of fantasy, but there are many other kinds of Ghibli moments – many more quiet and personal – and these are found in “Poppy Hill” in abundance. Umi’s talk with Miki just before she leaves comes to mind – quiet, real. This film is filled with such moments.

The other reaction I read says that Goro Miyazaki has no “life experience” or none as a “filmmaker.” As someone with some experience making films, I believe simply making a film such as “Earthsea” is more than enough experience to make a second. Perhaps the themes he is working with should be considered – though this film is about nostalgia for a time, a change between worlds, what it is also about is moving forward into that new world without completely erasing the past. If there is anything a US audience would have trouble with, it is that idea, rather than the cultural specificity as shown in “Poppy Hill.” We like to forget the past almost before it is over.

The nostalgia comes from the script, but adding in the hopes and fears of moving beyond it – which are present in abundance – comes from the director. I believe he succeeded.

I Make Comments said...

Perhaps I wasn't as disappointed by the film as you were because I went in to the film with extremely low expectations. (being that it was a Goro film) The film is fine, it's just not standard Ghibli quality. But hey, it was better than Cat Returns.

Anyway, if you're interested, here's a compilation of all of the hand-drawn cutscenes from the PS3 version of Ni No Kuni. I guess even though some of them overlap, there are some other cutscenes in the DS version, but I can't find them online.
Spoilers, obviously for those who want to play the game, but enjoy!

I must say, Ni No Kuni was a disappointment from a story perspective, it felt very much like a generic save-the-world JRPG complete with corny dialogue. There are definitely some charming moments, and some very cool tributes to Miyazaki though. And the gameplay is quite good. To me, it feels like a true successor to the Pokemon games, oddly...

I Make Comments said...

Correction, this does have the cutscenes from the DS version as well, my mistake!

Anonymous said...

I wish they'd just give up on Goro. He just doesn't cut it. Hell, Hiroyuki Morita could do a better job, and that's coming from someone who was underwhelmed by The Cat Returns

Josh said...

What the heck is some people's beef with From Up On Poppy Hill? It was the best Ghibli film since Howl's! Ponyo and Arrietty were both at a much lower standard than this film set. So yes, Goro managed to outperform newbie Hiromasa and even the legendary Miyazaki senior himself with his second film. Anyway, I really have to disagree with you saying that Goro has no experience at all in the film making field. Like a poster above previously stated, I'm quite sure that having to suffer through the production of Earthsea was experience enough. Some say that failing is the only way to truly learn from your mistakes and redeem yourself, which he has done here with Poppy Hill. Plus, after him and Hayao apologized to each other Hayao started mentoring him. So he's been learning the ropes for at least 6 years now. And who a better teacher than the legendary Miyazaki? That man could train a dog and it would create a masterpiece. I think one of the reasons you are feeling conflicted about the film is because you just aren't aquainted with Japanese history. And if you are, you still are missing that nostalgic feeling inside of you because you never experienced life in 60s Japan. So you can't attribute your complaints about feeling distanced to the film to the way Goro made it. It was never made for a western audience, and the Miyazaki's know this. It was immensely successful in Japan, and I guess you should know why. It was intended for them, not us. But even though this is true, I still found the film to be very good. And I really respect Goro for attempting to pave his own path in animation.

Unknown said...

I was surprised to read the critical/negative comments about "poppy hill". Studio Ghibli films resonate with viewers for different reasons and for me "From up on Poppy Hill" succeeds in its quiet moments where Umi is cooking in the kitchen or Umi and Shun's high speed bicycle ride through town.

Comparing "Poppy" to more epic films like Mononke Hime or Spirited away is unfair. It's like saying "Kiki's delivery Service" is a failure because it lacks the drama and Scoope of "Laputa". I love Studio Ghibli films because each movie offers a unique experience but still has that Ghibli feel. "Poppy" is quiet, funny and moving- you can't help but cheer Shun and Umi on as they learn about the past and try to save the clubhouse.

I do agree that Goro has not proven himself yet a solid director/storyetller. "Earthsea" is the only Ghibli film I don't enjoy and Hayao had more than a helping hand in shaping "from Up on Poppy hill".

Blood Muffin said...

your not alone friend. i have seen and own on blu ray or dvd every studio ghibli movie and I was wanting to give this a shot despite goro's previous film. honestly I saw this about half a year ago on digal file on a big screen in hd and the best thing about it was the stunning animation.

but thats it. the movie itself was so boring. I didn't care about any of the charecters. There was nothing that made me care.

I stoped watching it after 35 minutes or so. Really disapointing.

Anonymous said...

I personally don't see how all Miyazaki films have to be glorious epics. What's wrong with a simple film? There's absolutely nothing breathtaking about the animation in From Up on Poppy Hill at least compared to many of Studio Ghibli's earlier works because there's nothing fantastical to the story. It didn't call for these huge sweeping money shots the other films did, and that's okay. We should appreciate any hand animated film today because sadly Disney has absolutely no intention of doing hand animated films for the foreseeable future because "they don't sell". They just don't realize people don't want to see yet another silly musical with a singing princess.

However, for what it is the characters are enjoyable, and the story is good if sadly predictable. Predictability isn't a bad thing. Ponyo's story was predictable. You knew at the end Ponyo was going to become a girl. I found the music to be quite enjoyable. The winding noise that plays during the Studio Ghibli credits draws you in quite well. I personally like a wide range of movies, and while one day I want to watch an action film sometimes I want to watch something simple and artistic. From Up on Poppy Hill fits into the latter category in my opinion.

It's really not fair to compare this film to Tales from Earthsea. I don't know who's idea it was to make the film in the first place, but the original subject matter is terrible. Has anyone here attempted to read Ursula LeGuin's books? They're horrible. They're exactly like the movie. They're full of wooden characters in storylines that make absolutely no sense. He would have needed to pull a Forrest Gump and write a film that's totally different from the book. Perhaps he should have.

Blogan said...

I finally had the chance to watch this film in the theater tonight. In all honesty, I liked it. I can't say I loved it, like Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, Nausicaa, Totoro, or any number of other Ghibli films, but I truly did enjoy it. Considering how bad Earthsea was, I think Goro has made enormous strides as a director. I expect his next film (if he has one) will be a nice step up once again.

That being said, I agree on the lack of a "Ghibli moment". When I type that phrase, I think of the train scene in Spirited Away where we get a glimpse of the little shadow girl as the train pulls away from the station. Or the scene in Nausicaa where she catches a quick glimpse of Lastelle just before the ship collides with the cliff. Or the scene in Only Yesterday when Taeko suddenly sees that ratty, dirty boy from her childhood in the darkness. Those are moments that send chills through my entire body, moments that practically stop my heart, and I didn't get any of that from Poppy Hill. But guess what? I don't get that from a lot of other Ghibli films, either. Not even in some that are my favorites (Mononoke, Kiki, Totoro, Porco Rosso).

So Poppy Hill doesn't have quite the same feeling of wonder as some of Miyazaki's greatest achievements, but for me it still ranks handily above several other Ghiblis films. I liked it more than Earthsea (obviously), The Cat Returns, Arrietty, and Ponyo, which, for me, places it squarely at the top of the bottom third (or so) of Ghibli films.

Hanna said...

I felt the same way. I can't get lost in a dream when I watch Goro's movies.

Anonymous said...

I guess "your mileage may vary", absolutely. There were a number of moments that moved me in varying degrees in Poppy Hill, like...
• Umi's interactions with her household (and quiet capability throughout the movie)
• her dream of her father
• her and Shun's rare physical interactions, especially with her getting on the boat (my heart!)

I don't know! I am perhaps easily pleased. Haha. All I need to be happy is characters I care about interacting, growing, striving. The quiet story can be just as meaningful (though again, ymmv).

Also, just wondering if this blog has been abandoned?

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