From up on Poppy Hill you can see the Port of Yokohama and the ships going past. Every day Umi Matsuzaki raises a set of signal flags with the message ‘I pray for safe voyages’ in memory of her late father, who died ferrying supplies during the Korean War. Shun Kazama, passing the flags every morning on his father’s tug, wonders if the messages are meant for him, and writes a poem that is published in the school newspaper.
“I pray for safe voyages”
Set in 1963, this charming, utterly absorbing film from Studio Ghibli is actually two stories running parallel to each other – the growing attraction between Umi and Shun which is torpedoed by a secret from the past, and the efforts of these two and their schoolmates to save their clubhouse, the Latin Quarter. The troubled romance is gentle and heartwarming, and the controversial aspect – that they might be brother and sister – is sensitively handled. You cannot help but hope the truth will allow them to be a couple.
Shun and Umi
But it is the story of the fight to save the clubhouse that lifts this film into the stratosphere. Here comedy and that special kind of determinism of Ghibli films – which sometimes remind me of Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney shouting ‘Let’s put on a show!’ – blend effortlessly with a rich cast of characters. Even for a Ghibli film, Up On Poppy Hill seems particularly filled with delights around every corner.
The clubhouse is a rickety pile of rooms and nooks and crannies inhabited by various fanatical school clubs – Shun and his newspaper, the astronomy club, the philosophy club, among others. The philosopher’s club is especially delightful, with its hilarious leader. Because the Tokyo Olympics are fast approaching, and the clubhouse is such a mess, the school chairman decides it must be torn down and replaced by something more fitting to the Port of Yokohama. Umi suggests to the somewhat skeptical club members that it should be cleaned up and shown for the fine historic building it is.
With lots of encouragement and help from the girls, the male club members are persuaded to pitch in and scrub and clean the Latin Quarter until it shines – even if it means moving the philosophy club out of its cupboard.
The Philosophy Club Presidernt – voiced by Ron Howard in the English dub!
The music sets the tone for this film, with a cheery, jazz influences soundtrack from Satoshi Takebe, and the inclusion of one of my favourite songs from the 60s, Kyo Sakamoto’s Sukiyaki, used to great effect. Written by our beloved Hayao Myazaki, and directed by his son Goro with a refreshingly light touch, Up on Poppy Hill is based on a 1980s manga. My all time favourite (at the moment) Ghibli character, the Philosophy Club President, is voiced by Ron Howard in the English dub, but I’ve never seen it so can’t comment – but the original seems perfect to me anyway. Just look at that face – who can’t love it?
So real you could walk into it
The other thing I love about this film – as will most Ghibli films really – is the care and attention to detail in every scene. Above, Shun gives Umi a lift to the shops on the back of his bike. The scenery as they glide down the hill, the lights glowing in the shop windows, the movements and clothes of the passers-by and the range of goods on display – it is sheer magic, so real you could walk right into it.