Poppy Hill and the Wonderful Ordinary

On the wall above my desk, there hangs a home-made plaque with this Chesterton quote:

For a plain, hard-working man the home is not the one tame place in the world of adventure. It is the one wild place in the world of rules and set tasks.

I love this quote. Not because my home is particularly wild — as least no more wild than one would expect from a place populated almost entirely by boys. And not because my workplace is mindlessly, soul-suckingly repetitive — in fact, I sometimes wish it were a bit more regulated; I’m not always the sort of person who should be allowed to play (or work) unsupervised. I love it because it reminds me of something I too often forget:

“Ordinary” and “Mundane” are easily equated, but to think them the same is a grave mistake.

As someone who falls regularly and easily into the trap of devaluing the “ordinariness” of both work and home life, I was particularly struck by this stumbling block as I worked my way through the latest Studio Ghibli film: Goyo Miyazaki’s From Up on Poppy Hill, which received a typically-limited release in the States earlier this year, but is at last (gratifyingly) available on DVD.

Set in the swirling seaside town of Yokohama in the early 1960′s, the film tells the story of Umi Matsuzaki, a young student who spends her days racing back and forth between the boarding house she runs (while caring for her siblings and her grandmother) and the high school she attends — a model of patience and competence despite being burdened with obligations far beyond her years. Each morning, Umi raises a string of signal flags upon the flagpole in front of the boarding house. “I pray for safe voyages,” they say, and she raises them in memory of her father, a seaman who was lost during the Korean War. (Or does she raise them out of her indefatigable hope for his eventual, impossible return?)

Shun Kazama, a young man moonlighting as editor of her high school paper, notices the flags, and the piece he pens in response draws her gradually closer to him and to the strange building that houses his paper: The Quartier Latin, a dilapidated structure that hosts many of the high school’s more obscure — OK, nerd-infested student organizations. Soon, Umi finds herself battling to balance her growing feelings for Shun and her growing concern over the Administration’s proposed destruction of the Quartier with her already-exhausting obligations at home. And then, things get a whole lot more complicated. (No, I won’t tell. It’d spoil the fun. Trust me.)

The film raises a host of issues: the struggles of post-war Japan, the charms and tensions of young love, the importance and the pitfalls of both filial and familial piety, and the question of just how much reverence and respect one should have for one’s ancestors (and the complexifying role nostalgia can play in that understanding). It is that last point — best captured when one of the film’s protagonists remarks that “You cannot move into the future without first knowing the past” — that is the film’s most explicit “take away” point, and the issue that feels of greatest importance to its creators. But for me, its deepest resonance was not a point it raised directly, but one that surfaced during the unavoidable comparing and contrasting of Poppy Hill with prior, more famous Ghibli releases, and the oft-lost reality underscored by this compare-and-contrast: the value and the wonder found in ordinary life.

Goyo’s famous father (and Ghibli stalwart), the legendary Hayao Miyazaki, once said that “I believe that fantasy in the meaning of imagination is very important. We shouldn’t stick too close to everyday reality but give room to the reality of the heart, of the mind, and of the imagination.” It is a philosophy that permeates his most popular films, and one that I believe helps to explain his gradual, encouraging acceptance as a master filmmaker here in the States.

But in Poppy Hill, his son suggests that giving the mind, imagination, and heart room can look far more “ordinary” than we’re expecting, but that such an “ordinary” reality, properly understood, can be as “wonder-filled” and magic as his father’s fantasy worlds. Unlike Goyo’s first film, an “Earthsea” adaptation that followed most explicitly (and, mostly, unsuccessfully) in his father’s footsteps, this is a more “grounded” work. There are no wizards, no dragons, no soot sprites, no No-Face, no old ladies with incredibly detailed wrinkles. But it’s also a much better work than Tales from Earthsea, and feels far more natural — both in-and-of-itself, and for him as a filmmaker.

To say that it lacks the magical elements of his father’s work is not entirely accurate. There is a magicalness here, surely; but it’s less showy and far subtler. It’s ordinary magic — not better or worse, but much rarer than the sort of magic that has long been Hayao’s currency. Watching it, I suspect that Goyo has discovered that the best way to follow in his father’s footsteps is to recognize and embrace his philosophy — “Give room to the reality of the heart, of the mind, and of the imagination” — but to paint that reality upon an entirely different canvas. It’s not sticking to reality that’s the problem; it’s thinking that reality — the ordinary — is somehow at odds with wonder and adventure and wild places. (Looking for a perfect example of why Ghibli films are so wonderful? The spectacular, Arrietty-esque introduction to the Quartier and its charming, zany residents should do the trick. Fantastic — dare I say “fantastical?” — stuff. Yet somehow, rooted in reality.)

In contrast to his father’s Ghiblis, Goyo’s Poppy Hill doesn’t hum along; it meanders. But that pace — a pace that probably goes a long way towards explaining its limited-release here in the US — is not just appropriate for this story; it’s an essential part of the message. Because this story is not immediately fantastical; it’s only fantastical under the surface. And in that way, Goyo manages to bring his father’s point much closer to home. Ordinary things can seem mundane, but they’re not. They can be just as magical and just as “wonder-filled.” All you have to do is give them room.

The ending is abrupt. But it’ll grow on you.

Related: Steven Greydanus says it’s “the summer’s best-kept secret,” and I can’t disagree. I’m sure we’d both love to be proven wrong, though — not because it isn’t wonderful, but because it doesn’t need to stay a secret. That, should you chose to accept it, is your mission.

Also Related: Fellow Patheosi Nick Olson’s lengthy, highly worthwhile thoughts from over at the Christ and Pop Culture blog.

Lastly, Related: I didn’t want this to turn into a Hayaho Miyazaki Memorial post, so I ignored the elephant in the room. Still, sad times.

About Joseph Susanka

Joseph has been doing development work for institutions of Catholic higher education since graduating from Thomas Aquinas College in 1999. A grateful resident of Wyoming, he spends his free time exploring the beautiful Wind River Mountains, keeping track of his (currently) seven sons, and thanking his lucky stars for Netflix.

  • Ojai D

    Which would you recommend as an opener, a film by Hayao or by his son?

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/summathissummathat Joseph Susanka

      I’d definitely say Hayao, Ojai D’. Both because his films are better and because think the contrast between father and son I’m discussing here is much more obvious once you’re familiar with Dad’s work. (I’m pretty sure you’ve seen “Spirited Away,” though. I have distinct memories of subjecting you to its whimsical world.)

  • Graham

    In From Up on Poppy Hill, one can still see that Goro is not as “polished” an animation director as his father or even Ghibli’s other young and talented up and coming director, Hiromasa Yonebayashi, but you can also see there’s a kernal of a very interesting *filmmaker* in Goro, and perhaps Ghibli needs a sort of outsider presence like Goro to give the studio a kind of fresh jolt.

    It should be noted, however, that From Up on Poppy Hill is not Ghibli’s only brush with the “ordinary” as they have made similarly slow paced, earthbound films in the past, such as Whisper of the Heart, Only Yesterday. Even Hayao Miyazaki’s own Kiki’s Delivery Service and My Neighbor Totoro are much more low key affairs than what the West often associates with Studio Ghibli these days.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/summathissummathat Joseph Susanka

      Thanks for that second point in particular, Graham.

      Ghibli’s biggest state-side splash (and also my first brush with the studio) was “Spirited Away,” which definitely falls on the fantastical side of things. And Hayao’s two subsequent films — “Howl’s Moving Castle” and “Ponyo” — both feel much more fantastical than ordinary. But as you mention with “Whisper” and “Only Yesterday” (and even with The Master’s own “Kiki” and “Totoro,” the magical/bizarre world of “Spirited Away” and its descendants are far from the only style at Ghibli’s disposal. …though “Kiki” and “Totoro” retain/rely upon enough magic to “distance” them from the ordinary, at least in my mind. (Interestingly, Hayao’s final film — “The Wind Rises” — seems to be whole-heartedly on the ordinary side of things.)

      I hope “Poppy Hill” helps break down US expectations that the strange and wonderful are Ghibli’s only vocabulary. They have much to offer on the “ordinary” side of things.

      As you mention, I agree that Yonebayashi’s “The Secret World of Arrietty” felt more polished than “Poppy Hill.” …but I actually enjoyed it less. I can’t quite put my finger on it, though I’ve been trying for some time. Just an impression, at this point. (Also, the jump in quality between “Earthsea” and “Poppy Hill” is greatly encouraging to me regarding Goro and his future.)

  • LLJ

    Of course, this isn’t Ghibli’s first brush with the “ordinary”. Whisper of the Heart, My Neighbors the Yamadas and Only Yesterday are also low-key, non-fantasy affairs, and one could argue Hayao Miyazaki’s own Kiki’s Delivery Service and My Neighbor Totoro are also focused more on the ordinary as well. Today, it’s assumed that Ghibli films are fantastical and surreal but their entire history reveals a fairly varied catalogue.
    Goro’s strengths as a filmmaker may well reveal a completely different path than that of his father’s. Perhaps that is a good thing.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/summathissummathat Joseph Susanka

      “Goro’s strengths as a filmmaker may well reveal a completely different path than that of his father’s. Perhaps that is a good thing.”

      If “Poppy Hill” is an indication of what Goro’s capable of doing on this “completely different path,” I’m all for it. (Yet at the same time, it’s a path that might not be as different as it looks to us from the outside…)


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