*Lately I hate all the books. Every blessed one of them. So let's continue our unofficial look at animated women.
From Up On Poppy Hill gets a solid B from me for overall movie quality. I wanted something with the savage weight of Grave of The Fireflies. That's hardly a fair standard. From Up On Poppy Hill raised those expectations because it is set in 1964. The first generation of post war children are coming into their adulthood and everything is changing. Japan is hosting the Olympics. Construction continues at a booming pace. The post-war life is being replaced by a modern Japan. This is pretty huge stuff.
Before we start spoiling everything let me say that the film is beautiful. Studio Ghibli occasionally skimps in the art department. Not here. From Up On Poppy Hill requires multiple viewings from an art standpoint. Characterization is tight and varied. Some of Miyazaki's most beloved stereotypes are left out and the film is stronger for it. The characters feel more modern, even as they also feel true to the time period. The storyline is slight and pulls some emotional punches it really should have landed. This could be cultural. One problem with a film so heavily weighted in a specific time and place is not understanding what the audience may have brought to the viewing. I have no baggage about 1964 Japan, no oral history, no lived experience. There may be resonance I am unequipped to feel.
On to the spoilers.
From Up On Poppy Hill may be the most feminist work Studio Ghibli has put out. Despite their long tradition of strong female characters this one is the one I would put in front. It's heroine, Umi, is unaware of her own power. She is holding her family together, holding her community together and ultimately holds her school together. She is referred to as a lucky charm or a hard worker, but she herself simply wakes up and handles her life. Umi and her younger siblings live with their grandmother while Umi's mother does a work-study in America. Due to events offscreen Umi has taken in boarders, for whom she cooks and cleans. Umi is also a top student at school with an eye toward the sciences. Every morning Umi sends a message, via signal flag, to the boats in the harbor. Every morning one boy on one boat answers, but she never sees it.
Shun, the boy, is the eventual love interest for Umi. There is a ridiculously melodramatic plot twist where they believe they are siblings. Returning to a friendship, Umi and Shun work together to save a historic building. Where Umi's female centric life is quiet and orderly, Shun's male centric building is chaotic, noisy and filthy. It's Umi's quiet wisdom and work ethic that lead the men to understand victory isn't always gained through making the most noise. This isn't done in a gender conventional way. It's not Umi's pious example against their chagrined response. There is a problem. Umi considers practical solutions and the both genders work toward the goal together. Eventually Umi's mother returns. The mystery of Shun's parentage lies in post war confusion and the need for infants to be properly registered. Shun is the son of deceased friends. Umi's father adopted him but Umi's mother refused to abandon medical school. Shun was placed with another couple they knew.
Let's stop here for a moment. Umi's mother is never shamed for her choices as she would be in a western film. She is presented as a good and responsible citizen. She marries a man of limited future for love. She puts her education above the parental yoke on numerous occasions, even rejecting a child. Umi's mother is a radically feminist presentation of a mother. She has raised a child capable of complex responsibilities. She makes no apologies for her choices. Umi's mother is living her life on her own terms with the full support of her family. But back to our lovers.
Umi, despite idolizing her father, isn't quick to believe this Not My Kid tale her dad laid out on mom. It's 1964 so a DNA test is out of the question. Besides, Shun looks enough like her father that she thinks mom was sold a serious bill of goods. The romance is totally off. Eventually Shun discovers a character witness for all three dead parents and life goes on. Hard work wins the day and happily ever after is assumed by the credits. Despite the slight and familiar tale, From Up On Poppy Hill is mandatory viewing. All the women involved are working, in school, or property owners. There is a purpose to each one's life. Except for Umi's magical hair, the women are portrayed in the same manner as the men. After the shambles that was Tales of Earthsea I had real concerns for a post Miyazaki Studio Ghibli. While I mourn his upcoming retirement, I am very interested to see where they take us next.