Each week in The Moviegoer, Nick Olson examines new and upcoming films.
During an early scene in Gorō Miyazaki’s From Up on Poppy Hill, our attention is directed to a high school in Yokohama, Japan. Poppy Hill tells the story of 16 year old Umi Matsuzaki who, in this particular scene, is sitting outside enjoying lunch with a couple of friends. Suddenly, the lunch is interrupted when, next door, a crowd of boys from the high school emerge dutifully from the Latin Quarter, an ancient, dusty building that harbors the high school’s clubs. They clearly have a stunt in mind to relay a message: “save our building,” they chant and display. One boy, named Shun Kazama, appears on the roof of the building, while several of his comrades remove a cover from a pool below. Shun’s good friend and cohort in the journalism club, Shirō Mizunuma, is on the roof as well. Shirō, who is the operative leader as the school’s student government president, glances at his watch–“it’s time,” he says. A crowd of people–the girls included–look on from below. “Batter up!” Shirō lets a western sport reference slip, but the kids not only don’t notice, but they probably wouldn’t catch the irony even if they did. Shun takes the leap from the roof–the crowd gasps!–and he clumsily finds his way to the pool. Umi runs over to see if he’s okay as he rises from the water for air. There’s a shot of the two young teenagers looking at one another from close range with a bated-breath crowd in the background. Shun extends his hand, Umi accepts with her’s, and, even though the pair knew of each other, the crowd erupts with cheers as if an audience to a meet-cute.
The next day, Shun and Shirō distribute a newspaper cover story about the jump from the building that reads, “Historic Jump! Save Our Clubhouse!” It’s a stunt that they’re hoping works: the traditioned clubhouse is on the verge of being demolished to make way for a new building for the upcoming Olympics, an event that carries with it the weight of ushering in a more peaceful, new, modern culture. The above scene is representative of the film both in that it’s about preserving the past and its tradition, and that this theme is shaped melodramatically. Couched within the local high school in postwar Japan, the scene is illustrative of the film’s overall bent: a sometimes-humorous sentiment for reconciling the past with the evolving newness of modern “progress.” It’s a question of belonging in the future if one is without roots. Call it an existential concern for lost and dying histories delivered histrionically.
Poppy Hill opens with a quiet, delightful sequence in which we’re introduced to Umi’s daily life. Living in a boarding house overlooking the port of Yokohama, Umi begins every morning by raising signal flags to the passing ships–the message reads: “I pray for safe return.” Her father died in the Korean War, and her mother is studying abroad in the United States. As such, Umi’s primary task is to take care of her two younger siblings and her grandmother who owns the boarding house in which two other college aged students take up residence. Primarily, Umi prepares meals for the clan, watches over her sisters, and pursues her school work; she leads a life made more busy by her situation of added responsibility. But the more significant burden is her rootless situation with a dead father–a situation worsened by the absence of her mother. Raising flags to sea is a way for her to communicate with the past to try to make sense of her present and future situation. She doesn’t know, at first, if anyone at sea is reading those signals, but there’s certainly an insinuation about the importance of communicating with previous generations–even when they’re no longer among us–when she notes that “there’s a great view of the boats from grandma’s house.”
Meanwhile, Shun, whose parents were lost in the war, has been living with the Kazamas since he was born, when they adopted him after losing to death an infant of their own. Presently, he devotes most of his free time to the preservation of the Latin Quarter
and, as member of the journalism club, to the publication of the student newspaper. Shun’s adoptive father, Yūichirō, is a tugboat operator (given that his real father died at sea, this occupational fact is layered with significance), and so Shun often finds himself at sea, noticing signal flags being raised in the distance. Shun produces a poem about the signal flags in the student newspaper; this connection, coupled with their brief embrace in the aftermath of the “historic jump,” eventually leads to Umi helping Shun with the newspaper and the preservation of the clubhouse. In classic melodramatic fashion–but in the best possible way–Umi and Shun will come to learn that they have more in common than they realize.
Place and theme are intimately woven together. Postwar Japan is filled with people trying to deal with the absence of generations largely demolished. Many people are left dislocated, without anchor. Without essential roots in the past, these people lack a purposeful direction forward. The country is, in many ways, framing the end of the war as an opportunity to get rid of the old and usher in a peace associated with newness–an aim that isn’t wholly objectionable. But as Umi feels in her soul, “the past still has hold of us.” Indeed, because we human beings are inescapably constituted by our histories, to ignore the past or to lose communication with it is to lack self-understanding in a way that is deeply harmful. The plight of postwar Japan is then localized for Umi in her situation living in a boarding house. This is a complicated picture in which the boarding house is both her home and not her home–both where she takes up residence fruitfully, even while she feels the burden of a kind of exile. In short, our war-torn histories have an orphaning effect, but we are not beyond adoption. From up on Poppy Hill, Umi’s flag signaling is a way for her to feel connected with her father, and, as such, it’s a way for her to feel as if she is communicating with the past–not abandoning it–in order to give vigor to her future.
And, in lieu of the clubhouse’s potential demolition, Umi comes up with a suggestion that is essential to the film as a different response to how we envision reconciling historic traditions with modern progress: we renovate instead of demolish.
As my colleague Anders Bergstrom points out in his fine review of the film, there’s an underlying delightful twist here that Hayao Miyazaki’s son is helming this film about the relationship between tradition and progress, between the old and the new; further, it’s notable that the father-son combination worked together on this film (the father penned the screenplay, the son directed), which is itself a kind of production commentary on how to effectively pass the proverbial baton from one generation to another. Lovelier still is that, despite what seems to be a strained relationship between the father and son, Gorō Miyazaki’s “new” direction does not involve displacing his father’s trademark hand-drawn, colorful aesthetic. “There’s a certain amount that CG just can’t do at the moment when it comes to, for example, hair or skirts blowing in the wind,” Gorō Miyazaki told Melissa Leon in the same Daily Beast piece. It seems to me that there’s a certain element of life itself–of the spirit of life that’s often animated, for instance, by the wind–that is lost, or missing, to a degree in CG. This liveliness animates the finely-tuned, appropriately detailed depiction of ’60s era Japan in ways that are often breathtaking.
Also highlighting the film’s themes is its soundtrack, which features a steady dose of jazz, and variants of sweet, pop-orchestral music. The jazz often accompanies scenes in the clubhouse, particularly during its renovation. This is appropriate for a number of reasons, but for starters, there’s a sense in which jazz enlivens. Umi’s exact suggestion for renovating the clubhouse, for preserving the old relic, is to “give life to the old building.” Later, a headline proclaims that the clubhouse has been reborn, which isn’t creating something totally new, but preserving and cultivating something already in existence by making it new in life-giving ways. Further, I’m no expert, but it’s my understanding that jazz functions in such a way that adopts already existing harmonies while incorporating elements from from pop music. As such, jazz music is a sound that harmonizes the old and the new, the past and the future, tradition and progress.
It’s interesting to think about what the theme of harmonizing the traditional past with modern progress has to do with the melodramatic tone and shape that the film takes. At the outset, I should say that it’s a common, somewhat understandable tendency among critics to use the term “melodrama” pejoratively. In this iteration, “melodrama” means something like unrealistic, campy emotions and situations–a contrivance that evokes annoyance more than legitimate sympathy. But, outside of this pejorative context which perhaps is too hasty to privilege the “real” in its own misleading way, melodrama appeals to the emotions of the audience with a plot that typically delves into emotional crisis, a romance in jeopardy, difficult familial conditions, and a suffering, fearful protagonist who must overcome these obstacles. Other qualities of the form exist, but I’ve purposefully highlighted several that apply to this film. These are stereotypes, to be sure, but that doesn’t mean they have to be delivered stereotypically, which is often the true source of annoyance. And, in this film, the central conflict of its melodramatic plot is tethered to its quite serious themes of a rootless, war-torn generation. Connecting Poppy Hill’s theme with its sense of melodrama is perhaps best done when you consider that melodrama is often about social conditions and pressures, and in this film its evident that existing social conditions and pressures are embedded in self-constitutive timelines which create the emotional crisis. Ultimately, Poppy Hill is a melodrama that delivers both comedy that stems from the film’s self-awareness of itself as melodrama, and appeals to emotion that ring true.
There’s a dusty fragmentation to the clubhouse–a sense in which its thought life is torn asunder in a way that mirrors a past marred by war and strife. Of course, this is all quite playful in its high school setting, which provides contextual opportunity for the demands of all human existence conveyed in playful student debates, diatribes, and councils. Umi’s suggestion of renovation means that there’s a way to avoid shortsighted thinking without necessarily denigrating or outright resisting the progressive and the new. It’s a different vision by which we look to our past to inform our future; it’s a vision by which we strive for ways not to demolish our traditions, but to make them new in life-giving ways that don’t ignorantly, totally discard the past by which we’ve become who we are; it’s a vision by which ancient buildings are not just buildings, but possibilities for connecting to our past and finding a sense of belonging; it’s a searching vision by which architectural artifacts present opportunities for archaeological self-discovery which move us hopefully forward. I assume that this is why the journalism club is housed on the same floor as the archaeologists humorously trying to make archaeology cool again: because we must take note of the past if we are to find true relevance now. This vision I’ve been suggesting comes from the girl who prays for safe voyages–the girl who is received as the “goddess of good luck.” It’s Umi’s renovative view from up on Poppy Hill.