With every new Studio Ghibli film released in the U.S., I torture myself with a terrible question:
What will this world be like without Hayao Miyazaki?
It's a painful prospect, no doubt mostly reflective of my own sad inability to stop worrying about such things. But the 72-year-old master filmmaker at the world's finest animation studio increasingly has been writing and "planning" features rather than directing them himself. The past decade or so has seen a lot of very nice Studio Ghibli films made available in the U.S.: Hiroyuki Morita's The Cat Returns (a 2002 sequel to Yoshifumi Kondo's Whisper of the Heart), Hiromasa Yonebayashi's The Secret World of Arrietty from 2010, and (Hayao's son) Goro Miyazaki's Tales from Earthsea (2006) and the new From Up on Poppy Hill. All of them are lovely works of animation art—and none of them are as special as the films directed by the genius himself.
Hayao Miyazaki's films take us to completely unexpected places, to see things we can only imagine in fleeting dreams. Such originality is a rare magic. There is a surfeit of animated features these days, and plenty of them are overloaded with more laughs, more action, and more spectacle than most Studio Ghibli movies. But few, if any, speak to our sense of wonder as directly as the elder Miyazaki's works. To watch one of his films is to find yourself in an adventure—you don't know what will happen next, and you'll be surprised by what finally occurs. Your attention is drawn as much to the fresh beauty of its hand-painted world as to its unpredictable storyline. These are qualities that would be termed a "hard sell" at American studios, where the recipe for animation success usually consists of buffoonish characters in familiar settings more so than flights of pure fantasy. (Sadly, that goes for Pixar as well these days.)
So, as a moviegoer who's descended to the ninth level of jadedness, I am most thankful for the refreshing cinematic experiences Hayao Miyazaki has wrought: Castle in the Sky's proto-steampunk adventure (in 1986, before the term "steampunk" existed); My Neighbor Totoro, with its childhood wishes of otherworldly friends—as well as childhood fears of losing a parent; the coming-of-age tale of witchcraft in Kiki's Delivery Service; Princess Mononoke's epic war story of man vs. nature; the brilliant Spirited Away, which does exactly that to viewers, into a world of supernatural beings; Howl's Moving Castle, whose walking castle opens its doors to many different places; and his last movie, 2009's Ponyo, able to find magic in a living ocean.
Even his very first non-Ghibli feature, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, from 1984, reveals a strikingly original vision as Miyazaki takes a 12th-century Japanese folk tale and vaults it into a post-apocalyptic Earth burdened by the struggle between humans and the environment poisoned by their forebears. It holds many of the themes he would explore for years to come, ever rooted in someone's quest to find themselves and to make peace in a fractious world.
The stakes in From Up on Poppy Hill are not quite so high, and there are no fantastic interludes into the spirit realm. It is instead a straightforward melodrama about first love.
Based on a shoujo manga (a comic book aimed at girls and young women), Poppy Hill is set in a decidedly real world: the port city of Yokohama in 1963, a time when Japan was preparing for its first post-war Olympics and for its ascension as a world economic power. The prevailing sentiment was to make way for the future—which includes tearing down the decrepit clubhouse at Isogo High School. However, its students—led by school newspaper editor Shun Kazama—rally to save the old building and its connection to the past. Umi Matsuzaki, whose father died in the Korean War, joins the effort and finds herself falling for Shun. But: There is something in their mutual history that may keep them apart.
Goro Miyazaki has a strong eye for detail, and Poppy Hill luxuriates in its period setting, recreating an era when Japan's cultural heritage was being superseded by its industrial might. The views of Yokohama and Tokyo bustle with life and energy, and the ravishing backdrops are as immersive as Studio Ghibli's more otherworldly environs. (For Japanese audiences in particular, these scenes must inspire a strong sense of nostalgia.) Likewise, the undercurrent of melancholy as Umi tries to reconcile the loss of her father is masterfully underplayed, and the students' struggle to remind their betters of the importance of tradition is reminiscent of previous Ghibli themes.
From Up on Poppy Hill is a fine film. But it's not a great one. With its slow pace and low-key story, you may find your attention drifting at times. Taking on his father Hayao's mantle is no easy task, though Goro Miyazaki has shown strong directorial abilities in his first two features. Perhaps with his next film, he will reveal his own voice.