Charmed by the Past

MV5BMjMzMzM2NTM2NV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNTk4OTYwOQ@@__V1_SX214_I concede defeat. I have tried and tried, but I can’t quite figure out what makes Studio Ghibli’s films, particularly those in which Hayao Miyazaki has been involved, so emotionally satisfying. The phenomenal animation? Compelling stories? The touch of ma space? Case in point: I just finished watching From Up on Poppy Hill. If someone had told me the premise without telling me who was involved in the film, I’d be hitting the snooze button right about now.

Here is the premise: A girl (Umi), whose mom studies medicine in America and sea captain dad is presumed dead, works to help save a clubhouse slated for demolition at her school. All of this takes place before the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo.

Um, yeah. Sounds like a real nail biter, huh?


Hayao Miyazaki. He can grin, because I’m hooked on his movies.

Yet it was! There’s much more to the story than that—namely a budding romance and an extremely surprising twist. I’m a fan of both. Miyazaki wrote the film (based on a graphic novel) along with Keiko Niwa, and his son Gorō directed it. It debuted in Japan in 2011 and in the United States in 2013. If you’re used to movies like Princess Mononoke or Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, you might have to switch gears a bit, since From Up on Poppy Hill is as different from either film as day is from night. I mean, yeah, they all feature a strong female lead. But most of Miyazaki’s films go that route.

   NausCover Princess-Mononoke-princess-mononoke-16450786-1024-768

Okay. I’ll give figuring out what makes these films so special another shot, instead of letting my ignorance win the day. Maybe it’s the work ethic inherent in the films. Everyone works really, really hard. Even minor tasks seem compelling and noble. Take From Up on Poppy Hill. Umi cooks for the people who live in her family’s boarding house. Throughout the movie, she works hard with others to help clean the dilapidated clubhouse. Why? Because the students who inhabit the clubhouse are charmed by the past too, and think it worth preserving.

When Umi’s not cleaning the clubhouse, she’s hoisting signal flags (um, there’s a good reason for this), studying, or helping her new friend Shun with the newspaper produced by Shun’s literary club. Maybe for you, these activities sound about as interesting as watching paint dry. But what I find most charming about this story, and other stories about the past is the lack of technological conveniences. Life has a gentle rhythm. Relationships are forged not by texts or email, but by people hanging out and talking, working together, or through the exchange of long letters. Change comes about not by innovative software or high speed Internet, but by people meeting face to face and hashing things out.

This is one reason why I’m a fan of the classics and all of the lovely effort involved in relating to others or simply getting from Point A to Point B. There’s nothing instant about anyone’s journey. The past isn’t perfect, however, but it’s interesting nevertheless.

Don’t get me wrong. I love my car. I enjoy a plane ride. My iPhone is awesome. But for sheer entertainment value, I like to journey back to the past, back to a day when a couple falls in love not through Facebook but through a long bike ride or a walk down a street. Ah. Those were the days.


Movie poster from Princess Mononoke image from Miyazaki photo from Wikipedia. Umi and Shun from

41 thoughts on “Charmed by the Past

    • Yes. Whisper of the Heart is one of my favorites. Poppy Hill is closer to that premise, especially since there is singing involved as was the case in Whisper of the Heart. I’d like to see them make another movie like Castle in the Sky.

  1. I love this: “This is one reason why I’m a fan of the classics and all of the lovely effort involved in relating to others or simply getting from Point A to Point B. There’s nothing instant about anyone’s journey. The past isn’t perfect, however, but it’s interesting nevertheless.” And I agree! I loved reading Jane Austen novels when I was a teenager for this very reason. I remember reading about all of the letters that had to be sent back and forth and the impossibility of immediate contact or a quick courtship and just finding that so charming and so comforting, when I was feeling impatient about things I hoped would hurry up and happen!

    • That’s why I’m looking forward to your epistolary novel. 🙂 That’s also why I loved Jaclyn Moriarty’s epistolary novels as well as The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.

    • I love the slow build up. Chemistry is very important. And, sadly, I know some couples who learned their significant others broke up with them through a post or a status change Facebook. Ugh! It’s embarrassing!

  2. I know someone from my hometown who, via Wales, has moved to your country with his wife. He has lived in a few different towns and cities there, and though he drives he does make a point of exploring the places he finds himself in on foot. Says that is the only way to get to know the place.

  3. What a fantastic and thoughtful post! Thank you! I am such a fan of Miyazaki – and was able to visit Studio Ghibli last summer. Amazing! I am glad to hear this movie is out on DVD! Will look for it!

  4. Great piece, makes you think about pieces of work, whatever form they take that far longer than mass-produced, you can see love, care and attention goes into them. I guess its nostalgia which makes us think that way/ I’m glad I do, makes you appreciate the simpler things too all the more.

  5. I watched “Howl’s Moving Castle” and “Spirited Away” a few months ago after reading about them on your blog. Wonderful! There are many more I need to see. Thanks!

  6. I love Miyazaki. LOVE. I do love the gentle rhythm of life that you point out. I also love his juxtaposition of strange technological elements that seem fantastical (like in Howl’s Moving Castle–that was definitely not in the book!) with the natural world. I also love that his movies aren’t deep, angsty character studies, but you get the sense that they are very real and particular characters with their own very poignant, and sometimes quite profound, but simple longings. I haven’t seen this one (or Ponyo–I’m behind!) Thanks for bringing it to my attention!

  7. Yes, I’m definitely a Miyazaki fan as well — “Spirited Away” was definitely unlike any animated film I’d seen before, whether Japanese anime or otherwise. Although it didn’t feature violence or particularly hideous monsters, it was able to shock and disturb me with its imagery, and also to bring a tenderness that I wasn’t expecting.

  8. I haven’t seen Poppy Hill yet! (Although I did get to catch The Wind Rises in theaters this past summer.) With your endorsement, I’ll definitely have to make time for it soon.

      • Definitely worth seeing. I enjoyed it while I watched it but wouldn’t have ranked it among my top Ghibli favorites. That said, a lot of scenes and images have stuck with me even half a year later, and I think I actually appreciate it more in retrospect (as if it’s somehow ripened in my mind with age, haha).

        In many ways it exemplifies you the points you make in this post–unconventional plotting, slice of life focus, historical setting, incredible work ethic.

  9. Oh! I didn’t know Goro Miyazaki worked on another movie. I watched Tales from Earthsea and was only mildly impressed with the plot. But practice makes better and I’m curious about this one. Thanks so much for sharing with us.

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