I’ve always found myself stumped for an answer whenever I’m asked to name my favorite film. The question in itself confuses me. (Is your favorite film the best film you’ve seen?) I feel pressured to answer some obscure gem of a short film, or a popular-enough Wong Kar-Wai film. It’s often a test of taste, and I guess, of pretentiousness to an extent.
In reality, the types of movies that I would actually deem as “favorites” have always been the ones that have affected me on a deeply personal level, and not necessarily ones that are grandly profound or stunningly beautiful. I tend to gravitate towards simple, minute stories – and I’m not sure what that says about me.
“Ghibli” and “Miyazaki” are basically synonymous with the fantastic. From the whimsical adventures of Ponyo to the enchanting Spirited Away, you always come into a Ghibli film with certain expectations. Even the ones that revolve around the “real” world have a touch of wonder, like Jiro’s visions of airplanes in The Wind Rises or the dramatized fable of Shizuku’s novel in Whisper of the Heart. This is, after all, the appeal of animation. It’s the perfect medium to tell stories of worlds that would otherwise exist only in our dreams.
Once in a while, though, Ghibli takes on the ordinary. And when Ghibli gets it right, it’s delicately and elegantly earnest, and just as spellbinding. From Up On Poppy Hill navigates the rebirth of Japan as it prepares for the 1964 Olympics, looking past the ghosts of the Korean War and the World War II that has loomed over the nation for a decade. It balances its neorealist themes with a sweet coming-of-age romance, the heartening solidarity of students trying to save their clubhouse, and the nostalgia of a port city in the sixties.
Umi, the protagonist, is a high school student at Konan Academy. She dedicates most of her time to the upkeep of her grandmother’s boarding house, going to school, and raising nautical flags every morning in memory of her father who died in the Korean War. Throughout the film, she constantly negotiates between the past and the possibilities of the future, primarily manifesting in her romance with Shun, a member of the newspaper club and the intrepid poster boy for the anti-demolition movement at their school. With stolen glances and a bicycle ride at the right time and place, the film expertly maneuvers teenage intimacy in all its charm and awkwardness.
Small stories like these are given more chances to be sincere, to wear its heart on its sleeve. The mundane tenderness of From Up on Poppy Hill and other realist Ghibli films seems out of place for a medium known for its ability to illustrate imagined worlds. Yet, the film manages to execute an immense sensibility for adolescence while shining a light on the fantastically ordinary. In the hands of Miyazaki Goro, the captivating scenery of Yokohama’s hills and mesmerizing harbors serves as the only acceptable setting for such a story.
Despite there being clear conflict in the story and three interesting subplots unfolding within it, it’s pretty subdued for the usual coming-of-age film. A quintessential story of youth is painted with large strokes of melodrama, often because the protagonist cannot escape growing up no matter how badly she wants to stay in Neverland. From Up on Poppy Hill traverses the hardships of growing up without evoking angst. It didn’t tear out the soul of my inner 15-year-old only to stomp on it like The Diary of a Teenage Girl did, nor did it serve as a necessary purge of hang-ups like when I watched Lady Bird at a time when I thought I’d outgrown that kind of story. In Umi’s world, everything was, is, and will be alright. Here exists an inherent allure of the eternal present, one that’s “just fine”.
Perhaps I’m drawn to these quiet narratives because, simply put, I’m projecting on them. In her seminal essay, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, Laura Mulvey likens the screen to the mirror. She posits that the pleasure of looking is anchored by a certain love-hate narcissism for one’s self. Citing Lacan’s psychoanalytic theories, she proposes that there is pleasure in the recognition/misrecognition of the self, as an infant does when looking in a mirror and identifying itself for the first time, “he imagines his mirror image to be more complete, more perfect than he experiences his own body.”
What then did escaping into everyday Yokohama mean to me? I guess my idea of fantasy is to be a well-adjusted teenager who can cook bento meals every day, instead of a 24-year old who can’t finish college or consistently keep a job. Maybe I’m living out the teenage years I didn’t have through the alright-ness of Umi’s, where collective action is fruitful and the boy I like sounds like Anton Yelchin. Perhaps, escaping, to me, meant contentment.
Watching the film made me confront my ideas of growing up. Unlike the monolith of the coming-of-age story, Umi doesn’t transition between teenhood and adulthood, there is no hostile resistance to the growing pains. Things just happen, she cries for a day and makes a bad meal, then she learns from it or lets it go. Umi weathers the storm without fundamentally changing who she is.
The coming-of-age films that defined who I am suddenly paled in comparison to From Up on Poppy Hill. The emphasis on finding a complete, adult version of yourself – and screaming at your mother the entire time until you have – completely lost its appeal to me. Miyazaki Goro ditches the heart-wrenching melodrama of teenhood for Umi’s inspiring self-reliance. Instead of orchestrating a rite of passage from “growing up” to “grown up”, he gives her a chance to simply grow, and to enjoy every minute of it.
This, at 24, was something that I needed to realize. There wasn’t going to be a singular cinematic epiphany that was going to save me from my own shortcomings and immaturity. No drastic change in the color of my hair, in the apartment I lived in, or in the company I kept would instantly qualify me for the title of “grown up”. Growing, I discovered, could just be quiet, it could be cute, and it could be From Up on Poppy Hill. No jumping out of your mom’s speeding car required.
One wouldn’t expect a revelation like this to come in the form of a Ghibli film. Miyazaki Goro masterfully strikes a balance between the magic of the everyday and the drama that underpins it. The power of subdued narratives like this is their ability to evoke contemplation and emotionality. While adventures set in magical worlds can be equally profound, Ghibli effectively explores more complex themes in From Up on Poppy Hill, invoking an emotional depth that intensely resonates with its audience. In the same pace that the film breaks your heart, it offers an overwhelming feeling of “It’s okay, things will be alright,” – and that very sense of comfort unquestionably makes it my favorite Ghibli film.
Header image via Studio Ghibli
Nissie Arcega is a writer, producer, and QC girl. She’s currently taking her Creative Writing degree at UP Diliman. She’s also a freelance sell-out to fund her many hobbies, among other things (i.e. rent, bills, food, Kpop merch). She writes comics at Kalabaw Kolektib and essays on cinema at Strike II. The highlight of her life is catching Pete Wentz’ guitar pick at a Fall Out Boy concert in 2013.
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