So, after the release of what is well regarded as Miyazaki's best film (Spirited Away) in 2001, I'm sure the sky was the limit for Ghibli Studio's most profitable filmmaker.
And then came Howl's Moving Castle, which was a competent, sometimes moving film that had the classic Miyazaki feel, but wasn't quite on par with any of his previous efforts. The same could be said for Ponyo and The Secret World of Arrietty, which were both beautiful to look at and painfully forthright.
So even if we can still forgive Miyazaki's forays into pandering (since he's continued to churn out such adorable lines), From Up on Poppy Hill is completely unforgivable in what has become Ghibli Studio's only mediocre effort to date. The source of the problem? Sadly, a steep decline (or perhaps free-fall?) in Miyazaki's best attribute: the importance of the environment and how it explores a character's psyche.
Director: Tetsurô Sayama
Screenwriter/Remember when he made Spirited Away?: Hayao Miyazaki
Other screenwriter who unsurprisingly wrote Arietty as well: Keiko Niwa
Umi/lamer version of Pazu from Castle in the Sky: Masami Nagasawa
Shun/lamer version of Seiji from Whisper of the Heart: Junichi Okada
Actors in the dubbed version I didn't watch because, like, I'm too cool for that: Sarah Bolger (In America!!!!), Anton Yelchin (the guy who couldn't move his fucking chair business to Europe in Like Crazy), Gillian Anderson (The X-Files!!!!), Christina Hendricks (aka Joanie/Red/white trash in Drive), Aubrey Plaza (marry me?), Jaime Lee Curtis (never stabbed, sadly), and Ron Howard (what the what?).
What It's Good For:
-if you think Miyazaki's films are getting progressively better
-it's OK for children, although they won't comprehend the political baggage (because nobody can)
-the English dub has Ron Howard, so I guess that's pretty cool?
-you happen to not particularly enjoy Miyazaki's freefall
-if you're annoyed with overtly political films
-if you're looking for one of Miyazaki's fantasy films
-it's not geared toward children
-you don't prefer Miyazaki's realistic tales (see Whisper of the Heart)
You know what My Neighbor Totoro has strangely always reminded me of? The Italian Neorealist movement. Or even a Robert Bresson film. No wait! I've got a Japanese director: Yasujiro Ozu. Not because of political turmoil or one's debilitating relationship with god and sexuality, but for how contained these films are. That may seem strange to read: a Miyazaki film being contained. Especially considering My Neighbor Totoro fixates on a two children's sprawling imagination as they soar over towns and trees with their new giant cat bus and a roaring spirit of the forest. And once Satsuki and Mei begin exploring the countryside from an aerial view and the beautiful landscape dictates the scene, you may be more inclined to compare Miyazaki with some other Japanese director named Akira Kurosawa.
What makes Totoro so down-to-earth and keeps it within shouting distance of an Ozu film is the source of such uncontrollable imagination: moving to a new home and presented with the possibility of an upended lifestyle, Satsuki and Mei's imagination adversely takes off as their mother's illness takes hold. The focus is every bit as grounded and dedicated to family structure as Tokyo Story or Late Spring. The suppression of reality suddenly becomes a burgeoning necessity for fantasy. Although these two young girls strengthen their grasps on Totoro and the freedom he represents, their motivation is unavoidably attached to their ill mother. Thus, the fantasy elements are contained within the characters' psyches, making this fantastical journey (perhaps) Miyazaki's most contained, simplistic tale. Never is it more plain and heartrendingly clear that Totoro is about the strength one receives from his or her family than when Satsuki, Mei, and their father bow before a gigantic tree and the father supports his daughter's fleeting imagination by saying, "Thank you for watching over Mei and making us feel so welcome here. Please continue to look after us."
This connection with nature is normally what keeps Miyazaki's films so grounded: the environment infuses with the psychology and motivations of the characters at hand. Even the colorfully layered, ghost-ridden realm of Spirited Away never once abandons the coming-of-age intentions that bound it to Miyazaki's most straightforward portrayal of blossoming youth in Whisper of the Heart. Each dilemma Chihiro encounters and subsequently conquers is another step forward in her growth, all taking place away from the gluttonous world that consumed her parents. Alone and independent, all of her encounters with insatiably hungry creatures and barriers blocking her escape back to reality carry a coming-of-age weight that are inextricably bound to both her love for family and a desire become a better, less selfish daughter.
The post-apocalyptic landscape of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind never once overshadow's Nausicaä's dedication to both cleansing nature and purging evil from her beloved hometown, but instead becomes one with her journey. The bugs of the valley only react accordingly to the human's continual destruction of the forest. Her love for the insects that have grown ornery due to pollution carries a double weight that can translate to both the adventurous elements of the film and her desire to create a cleaner world for her people.
The sky pirates and gigantic airships only add psychological fuel to Lupita's journey of self-discovery in Castle in the Sky, accompanying her through the air as she inches closer to the castle that holds the key to her past. The castle represents a unique opportunity for the three separate parties traveling towards it, and all of them either contribute to or attempt to disrupt Lupita's mission to discover her origins.
Porco Rosso's various aerial dogfights advance the infatuation with male superiority and female oppression. As ships are torn apart and male egos are broken down, a female in turn rebuilds the plane, only to be left sitting on the sidelines and becoming a prize for the final showdown's winner.
Princess Mononoke's focus on man's relationship with nature is partnered by an environmental battle that puts Avatar to absolute fucking shame, as the war that consumes the forest recalls Princess Nausicaä's loyalty to her people. The personalities that emerge from the forest—from the fiery red boar Nago to the raised-by-wolves/human-hating Princess Mononoke—all contribute to a larger idea covering the destruction of the environment. Stereotypes are blurred and intentions are less cut-and-dry than James Cameron brazenly scripts, which allows for a bit of ambiguity that lends bubbling curiosity to the characterization at hand. The Deer God is a supernatural force stemming from mankind's destructive, greedy nature and the chaos that results from it. All of the products of the environment work together towards a central goal.
In all of these cases, we witness a sort of bubble forming around the characters via the environment. I mean, yeah, that's obvious. You could say that about any film. But shifting all the way back to My Neighbor Totoro, that bubble is the result of facets within the environment. The environment in Miyazaki's films owns an intrinisc attachment that can be both physically explored and psychologically mapped out. You'd just as well create a venn diagram of these character's hopes and motivations and still create a rounded image of the environment at hand. For Totoro, soaring into the air represents more than just the beautiful water colors explored by Ghibli during the 1980s—it's the emotional journey through the suppression of reality that truly defines the finer plot devices and environmental props that filter throughout.
So where did Miyazaki begin to falter? Despite my love for Howl's Moving Castle, there are scattered moments of candidness that marked the ugly turn for the worse for Miyazaki. Gorgeous as ever to behold, Howl's castle's sprawling structure also relates his detachment from society. A firm believer in mastering one's own fate, his town-within-a-ship represents an ever-growing arrangement that ensures such solitude. The problem lies in his ship's translation to Sophie, who herself believes she is the most inept of her talented family and destined to fail. While Howl is surely the antithesis to Sophie's dilemma, the props within the castle are often unabashedly direct with this idea, including a moment when Sophie stares into the mirror and receives an elderly version of herself.
Not at all in tradition with Miyazaki's previous efforts, this moment can be compared with literally any other thematic moment through the director's filmography and it would seem less organic. Almost as if the ghostly creature from Spirited Away had been superimposed with an image of Chihiro's parents turning into giant hogs.
Almost as if Muska had looked directly at Lupita in the castle's center and went on to explain the irony of their familial connection.
Almost as if Fio had yelled at Porco during the dogfight: "You must win this battle for the sake of my independence as a woman!"
These moments are few and far between in Howl, but they become numerous and burdensome in Ponyo. Just before partnering up with Keiko Niwa for a pair of films, Miyazaki wrote and directed Ponyo, which is sickeningly and somewhat forgivably marketed towards children. It also explains much of the pandering obviousness throughout. My Neighbor Totoro is, at its heart, as tragic and dark as it is liberating and hopeful. The children's dying mother induces grief, but the grief is subtly filtered through the environment.
There is literally nothing subtle about Ponyo, which begins with Ponyo's colorful and tumultuous emergence from the sea and doesn't worry about inducing seizures and eye-rolls for a solid 100 minutes. Sosuke's innocent acceptance of Ponyo says plenty of his friendless traveling lifestyle and absent father, but the connection is less dependent upon the environment's output more than ever. What Ponyo represents is resolutely determined from the get-go, and their blossoming friendship does indeed allow Sosuke's forlornness to take shape. But various other factors are lazily lopped into the film that are meant to directly correlate with Sosuke's abandoned state, such as the struggles of the nuclear family (more finely explored with Spirited Away's environment) and mankind's destruction of the nature (more finely explored with Princess Mononoke's environment). And Ponyo's ending is easily Miyazaki's least earned, as Sosuke's "power of love" suddenly becomes what rids the planet of evil. Such extravagance is tied to Miyazaki's loftier intentions, abandoning the intimacy of Sosuke and Ponyo's relationship. In turn Miyazaki attempts to create a personal relationship with many of the political arrangements Miyazaki has constructed outside what his environment has intrinsically offered. If Totoro the creature is meant to subtly represent the suppression of reality, Ponyo's grand departure into the sea screams, "LOVE CAN SAVE US ALL", despite the fact that this moment represents nothing more than a colorful, overtly simplified, and out-of-place personification of Sosuke's loneliness.
In both Howl and Ponyo, we see two different manipulations of the environment. In Howl it's a physical alteration meant to elicit a psychological moment. In Ponyo, nothing is physically altered, but instead the character of Ponyo is meant to represent more than she's seemingly capable of achieving. Thus, the sea (the environment she's tied to) and the characterized weight it carries means close to nothing. And since the sea pours over the docks and floods the streets, becoming an environmental hazard for the characters, the adventurous sequences in the film don't hold any sort of innate psychological attachment to Ponyo or Sosuke. To go along with the insertion of the very un-Miyazaki-like candidness, the environment suddenly becomes less organic. Whereas the children of Totoro dictate the fine line between reality and fantasy, Miyazaki suddenly begins to pull the strings, creating constructed senses of irony, psychology, symbolism, and thematic relation to the environment at hand.
So here we are, arriving at From Up on Poppy Hill—undoubtedly Miyazaki's emptiest use of the environment. The problem can, of course, be linked to Keiko Niwa, who helped Miyazaki write both Poppy and The Secret World of Arrietty. Arietty's use of environment is endearing, even if that's as far as the compliment can go. There's a theme of "smallness" in the film, which explores the difference between being small and feeling small—a feeling both Sho and Arietty experience (one of them on a physical scale). In this sense, the environment carries some heft, as Arietty and her family are forced to shield themselves from society in their tiny, hidden home, much like Sho's deprived situation.
But if Sho's illness is to be the connection, then where is the bubble? All we have to do is bring back Totoro once again to prove that if environment is so integral to the characters' situations, then it must gain a personality of its own that also enhances the psychological situation at hand. In that respect, Miyazaki and Niwa chose many occasions to bluntly state their intentions, such as when Sho tells Arietty, "You protected me after all." This is nothing like the father's line in Totoro, which is advancing the connection with nature that freed these young girls' imaginations. In Arietty, dialogue replaces what the environment should intrinsically display, with elongated conversations about Sho's illness and Arietty's race eating up most of the running time.
So if Miyazaki always employs an environment that's meant to relate a character's struggles, what forms the bubble in From Up on Poppy Hill? The Latin Quarter—the building that houses the school's various clubs—is meant to reflect both political and psychological dilemmas for Umi and Shun. It's the mixing of those two intentions that ultimately falls flat on its face.
Since the psychological intentions are most important, we'll start with those first. Looking at Umi and Shun, what do they have in common? Mysterious pasts. Unanswered questions. Incomplete family histories. And, in general, a lack of direction without a concrete past to rely upon. Together they search through Yokohama looking for answers, comparing photographs, relating vague knowledge of their respective family histories, and testing their weird, possibly incestuous relationship with one another. The inability to understand the past directly inhibits forming an exciting new romance, and thus they react.
Umi's reaction is to help renovate the Latin Quarter. It's a simple and honest connection drawn, as the young girl is motivated to rebuild a debilitating structure in the midst of a crippled past. Because she cannot determine the true meaning of her relationship with Shun and how their pasts relate, her reactions becomes to help renovate something dear to his heart.
But looking back on every Miyazaki example listed above, how does the environment of Poppy Hill connect these two individuals? In fashion with Miyazaki as of late, Shun's intentions are literally blared through a megaphone, as rebuilding the Latin Quarter is entirely motivated by politics. So as Umi scrubs the floors, dusts the chandeliers, and repairs old bookshelves (during one of the film's three separate cleaning montages), her muted dedication to the building literally owns no connection to Shun. His motivation seems entirely part of his being, as he's a boisterous and loud individual that feels pressured by the weight of the government that will ultimately decide the fate of his beloved building.
To further distance the relationship between politics and genealogical questions (if that is to be the true connector of these two teenagers through the given environment), the Latin Quarter itself is stuffed with academics angrily arguing politics and philosophy. How in the world would the film's overwhelming attention to arguments between astrologers, scientists, philosophers, and mathematicians connect with Umi's desires?
Perhaps the Latin Quarter is meant to be a place of diversity? Perhaps this is a place that carries ambiguous meaning that could relate a number of intrinsic psychological bearings? Perhaps these academics' questions and self-reflection is meant to be a parallel to Umi's inability to solve her family past?
Perhaps. But once again remembering the personification of environment, the Latin Quarter's role in Poppy Hill is constantly either stated verbatim or subsequently contradicted.
"There's no future for people who worship the future and forget the past," yells a group of philosophers in unison...which is met with the same veracity and narrative importance as a group screaming together, "Throw the anarchists out!" Poppy Hill is very much a politically motivated film, to the point where Miyazaki and Niwa are pretty much penning a sentiment Miyazaki has clearly held true to his heart throughout his entire career. But what about what this all means to Umi?
"We create our own path, as opposed to men who blindly follow the crowd," another group iterates, vaguely recalling a feeling Umi experiences while in the Latin Quarter. She's there subconsciously reconstructing her past vicariously through a crumbling building, yet it doesn't keep in line with any of the other character's intentions. If this is meant to be a commentary on her wandering character and her inability to create a life of her own, that would be pretty impressive.
But what about the politics' continued role in the film? If the politics were simply meant to provide a subtle parallel to Umi's mindset, would it both A) announce the role of itself verbatim and B) go on to gain a personality that directly contradicts that very idea?
OF COURSE FUCKING NOT.
But go ahead and guess if it does...go ahead and guess!
OK, I'll just tell you: it totally does. As noted above, the men of the Latin Quarter constantly announce their political motivations, all of which carry a convenient parallel to Umi's disconnection from her family, and thus society. Umi raises a flag every morning as a prayer for her father at sea—a sentimental moment that's supposed to carry a metaphorical connection with the film's obsession with politics, which itself owns the subtlety of an Acme sledgehammer.
You could be wondering, "hey, Miyazaki pulls this sort of stunt in Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind!" That would be pretty cool if you were saying that, because that would mean you're a big enough Miyazaki fan to remember the blatant narration by Nausicaä over the events and I think we'd be awesome friends. But context is everything, and
Nausicaä's narration is more or less a case of unnecessary writing than inhibiting and restrictive writing. Never once are Nausicaä's statements directly contradicting the heart of the film: she speaks what she truly believes, but never once is it to note the irony of a situation.
The contradiction in Poppy Hill comes with just about any politically motivated moment that occurs outside of the Latin Quarters, such as when the school newspaper produces the worst headline of all time: "Most Girls Oppose Demolition." Miyazaki's films are often beautiful feminist statements that empower young women in a society that attempts to strip them of individuality, but this seems like heartfelt intentions gone horribly awry. Umi is grouped with a gander of young girls who all, keeping in line with Sora's crush on Shun, oppose the building demolition on trivial grounds. This instantly creates a political subplot that no longer bears any resemblance to the connection Miyazaki and Niwa have blatantly constructed, thus separating the film into succinct parts that are meant to all connect to Umi's psychological trauma.
Perhaps the saddest, least substantial, and most manipulative moment comes during Umi and Shun's meeting with Tokumaru, the school board's chairman, in what quickly becomes yet another manufactured moment hellbent on connecting the film's political baggage with Umi's past misgivings. Tokumaru hears the boys arguments, both of which are very politically motivated and weary of the governments' destructive capabilities, and then turns to Umi.
"What do you care about that old shack?" he asks her, in a moment that I can only assume is supposed to make us all collective say, "OHHHHHHHH I GET IT." The conversation, if you can believe it, evolves into a questioning of her past and what her father does for a living. She relates her struggles (just in case you didn't already catch on), to which the wildly reasonable (since almost no adults in this film are) Tokumaru responds with a hearty agreement to visit the building and save it from demolition.
Even if we can forgive this moment for being painfully forthright, it's unforgivable for its contradiction. It carries the same limp connection formed with the newspaper headline, as it does nothing more than loosely link together Umi's subconscious desire to physically mend her past with the Shun's political intentions. Umi's motivations have absolutely nothing to do with politics, yet her psychological progression is mapped by political events and statements.
If the message is that all politics are local and should be determined by human interest stories, it's a flimsy one.
If the message is that Umi's desire to discover her true self transcends politics, it's an incredibly flimsy one.
Then again, if either of these messages are true (and, I mean, one of them has gotta be), then it's also a contradictory and ultimately insulting one.
Did I like it:
Did you read this? No. And I love Miyazaki. I'd go as far to say he's never made a film I didn't admire profoundly on some level. But I have nothing but pure apathy for From Up on Poppy Hill.
There are plenty of heartfelt moments that occur outside of the Latin Quarter, but in that respect it becomes a lamer version of Whisper of the Heart. Umi's search for her past is slow and tedious, all reliant on face-to-face conversations that carry the excitement of piecing together a four-piece jigsaw puzzle. It's dragged and dragged, never really connecting with the environment Miyazaki constructs. They exist as separate entities...which is why, you know, I never even bothered writing about it.
And what's up with those cleaning montages? I can honestly only think of a couple montages in Miyazaki's history. He literally doubled his count with this movie.
What. I don't know. I can already tell I won't be good at this section. I feel like Jasper Dolphin trying to rap.
Fuck it. Wolf Gang.