Like father, like son?

by Jasper Yeo / Film Columnist • April 18, 2013

One of the most important things directors can do is distinguish themselves from their peers. Of course, things are more difficult when directors’ peers fall within their very family. This is the case for From Up on Poppy Hill from the Japanese animation house Studio Ghibli, now playing at the Kendall Square Cinema. Poppy Hill is the second animated feature by Goro Miyazaki, son of director Hayao Miyazaki who is renowned for such imaginative and accessible animated films as My Neighbor Totoro and Spirited Away.

Children in the same field as their parents can suffer the misfortune of constant comparison. Some can differentiate themselves and achieve equal mindshare with their parents, such as Ivan and Jason Reitman, directors of Ghostbusters and Juno respectively. However, since animation is not nearly as broad a field as live-action, Goro Miyazaki is not so lucky. Previously, he helmed an underwhelming adaptation of the acclaimed fantasy series Tales from Earthsea (2006). Now, he returns with a project of more modest aspirations, surely a better testing ground for any artistic voice.

From Up on Poppy Hill is a relaxed 1960s period drama about the life of Umi Matsuzaki (dubbed by Sarah Bolger), a girl living in Yokohama, and her relationship with fellow student and editor of the school newspaper Shun Kazama (Aton Yelchin). The plot is bread and butter, about the students’ efforts to save their club building from demolition. The romance between the two protagonists offers some surprising obstacles, but still fits its role as a conventional love story. The mood may comment on the then-ongoing postwar Japanese transition and the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, but largely the story is not out to surprise the viewer with one-of-a-kind plot developments.

This prosaic quality is the biggest complaint one could put against Poppy Hill. It’s not as if Studio Ghibli has never ventured outside of the fantastic before. Studio Co-Founder Isao Takahata’s 1991 film Only Yesterday and the late Yoshifumi Kondo’s Whisper of the Heart (1995) are two films by the studio that show that its light touch can make stories about everyday life important and meaningful. Poppy Hill, by contrast, seems content to be a basic drama. Even where these other films playfully experimented in animation style, remains more or less firmly rooted in the rounded and cartoony Ghibli house style.

For a movie as grounded as this, one might ask why is it animated at all? Why couldn’t it be a live-action adaptation of its source comic book like many American films? I would argue that even on a level of ‘normalcy,’ the artistry of Studio Ghibli is more than enough to make the film visually worthwhile, especially given the chance to see it on the big screen. The warmth of 60s Yokohama, with its evening fog and three-wheeled cars, and the coziness of the school club building, invites even for those with neither knowledge nor personal nostalgia for the time and place.

But the case could be made that all Ghibli films invoke a kind of universal nostalgia, whether their locales are real or imagined. The backgrounds and details of the film become one with the its messages about the importance of a humble, connected life.

It seems that Goro Miyazaki tried his father’s trademark fantasy style with Earthsea and stumbled, and tried the everyday drama genre and faired better. He may find his voice yet. If you’re not that patient, then don’t worry. The founding duo of Miyazaki the Elder and Takahata are each releasing a film sometime later this year, though we likely won’t see them stateside until a while after that. At this point when every new film from the two may be their last, it’s good to know that the institution of Ghibli has other talent on call. Goro Miyazaki may not be a titan of animation like his father, but Poppy Hill goes to show that each director has his own unique qualities to offer, no matter the family connection.