TL;DR – the story of a post-war Japan focusing on Umi and Shun, two teenagers looking to understand their pasts while also trying to look forward to their future.
Review (warning: spoilers)
Kokuriko-zaka Kara (aka From Up On Poppy Hill) is an atmospheric tale animated with love by Studio Ghibli, scripted by Hayao Miyazaki and Keiko Niwa, and directed by Goro Miyazaki.
The film opens to a new day dawning on Poppy Hill overlooking a seaside port, and we watch high-school girl, Umi Matsuzaki, awaken and commence her morning routine. The sense this is a bygone time in Japan is confirmed as we watch her work in the kitchen preparing breakfast for her siblings and grandmother. The rice cooker, gas stove, kitchen layout, and how Umi goes about washing clothes, all evokes a time period before the wonders of computers and appliances became common place. Among her duties, she also walks outside to the front of their boarding home, Coquelicot Manor, to raise signal flags every day.
My kids would still be asleep by the time Umi has finished her morning chores, demonstrating a maturity beyond her years. She then gets dressed to go to school. When she arrives, a friend in class shows her a newspaper article (yes, this is definitely an era before smart phones and internet) of a poem that talks about a girl who raises flags every morning to the boats that pass by. Umi is surprised and a little embarrassed by the attention, all the more so because the poem asks why she sends her thoughts up to the sky.
At lunch time, the boys at the school unfurl banners around an old house known as the ‘Latin Quarter’ that is part of the school and used for club activities. The Latin Quarter is scheduled for demolition, and certain students are protesting. Thus, we meet Shun Kazama , who performs a stunt by jumping off the old house into a small pool while his classmates take photographs. Shun works on the high school newspaper, is attempting to prevent the demolition, and seeks to build awareness that people shouldn’t solely focus on the future and forget the past.
This is something that Umi can relate to. Her father was a sailor, the one responsible for teaching her how to use signal flags, and when she was younger, she raised these flags to help guide her father home. However, during the Korean war, his father’s ship sank after hitting an underwater mine, but Umi has continued to raise the flags ever since. The importance of holding onto and honouring his memory lies within her.
Umi suspects that Shun is the one who wrote the poem, but initially is unable to find a moment to ask him. Instead, she ends up being enlisted to help the newspaper to help transcribe articles for print. Through these interactions, a growing attraction builds between Umi and Shun.
The scene where Umi returns home late to prepare dinner and discovers she is missing pork for the curry she wants to make results in Shun giving her a lift on his bicycle down to the bottom of Poppy Hill where the markets are. It’s a lovely scene in a film that has all the trademarks of the Ghibli detail.
From these opening events, I thought the story would be straight forward. The club students rally together to try and save the Latin Quarter and, in the process, Umi and Shun would fall in love. And indeed, when Umi suggests that they clean up the old building to demonstrate to the principal it is worth keeping and still holds cultural and historical significance, the scenes of the student body undertaking the Latin Quarter makeover is spectacular and a feast for the eyes.
The soundtrack also aids in the feel of the film as the songs and music reminded me of that era; a time when life was, in a sense, simpler.
However, an unexpected twist manifests itself when Umi shows an old photograph of his father. Shun looks at the photo and clearly he knows something that Umi doesn’t. The next day, Shun completely ignores Umi, much to her confusion.
Eventually the change in Shun’s demeanour is explained. Shun confronts his father, Akio Kazama, with the assertion that Umi’s father, Yuuichirou, is actually his biological father, which would make Akio his adoptive father.
Akio Kazama explains that shortly after the end of World War II, he and his wife lost their newborn child. Yuuichirou turned up at their doorstep with baby Shun and the Kazamas adopted him.
So, now it appears that Shun and Umi are actually brother and sister, which would make all previous attraction very icky indeed. When Umi is presented with this revelation, it confuses her but Shun says they must find a way to only be friends.
You can’t help but feel for Umi. She’s caring, a hard worker, and has held the pieces of her heart together as best she can since her father’s death. Just when you think she might open her heart again, it gets dashed against the rocks. Much to her credit, she perseveres and seeks to be Shun’s friend even with these tumult of feelings playing around in the background.
But wait, it gets more complicated. When Umi’s mother, Ryouko, returns from America, and Umi asks her about Shun, she reveals that Shun is actually the son of another man, Hiroshi Tachibana. Hiroshi and Yuuichirou were best friends. Hiroshi died in an accident aboard a repatriation ship, his wife died in chidlbirth, and all of Shun’s other relatives perished when Nagasaki was hit by the nuclear bomb. Yuuichirou did not want to give Shun up to an orphanage, so he gave him to the Kazamas.
I was relieved at this outcome because prior to Ryouko’s explanation, I was thinking that Yuuichirou wasn’t the ideal father that Umi made him out to be. What father gives away their newborn son to another couple? Turns out Yuuichirou wasn’t the biological father, which means Umi and Shun aren’t siblings.
The Latin Quarter ends up being a side story and thankfully is saved from demolition. It is a lovely sequence when Tokumaru, the school board’s chairman, is convinced to visit the renovated building and is impressed by what the students have done. He chooses to build elsewhere to preserve the Latin Quarter, and the students celebrate.
When Umi and Shun get called away to meet a captain of a ship who was friends with both Yuuichirou and Hiroshi, he confirms what Ryouko said. Though we don’t see Umi and Shun fall in love, we can safely assume they decide to take the next step knowing that they are not at all blood related.
Beautifully animated, and with a surprisingly more complex plot than I anticipated, From Up On Poppy Hill is a moving story capturing a post-war Japan and the impacts World War II had on the generations that followed.
8.5 out of 10