Goro Miyazaki, son of the famous Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki, has taken over his father's Studio Ghibli and released a new feature film, From Up On Poppy Hill (out in the States tomorrow). In this exclusive profile by Scott Thill, Miyazaki talks about the new movie and his father's legacy.
If Goro Miyazaki is feeling the pressure of tradition, he doesn't seem to be showing it.
He's the son of legendary animator Hayao Miyazaki, whose stunning films large (Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke) and small (Kiki's Delivery Service, My Neighbor Totoro) have become anime influentials on either side of the Pacific. But with the arrival of From Up On Poppy Hill, opening stateside March 15 in New York and wider next week, Goro Miyazaki now has two directorial bows to his hallowed name.
Despite its captivating visuals and textures, Miyazaki's debut Tales From Earthsea, adapted from Ursula LeGuin's fantasy legendarium, rubbed loyalists of both the elder Miyazaki and the beloved Le Guin the wrong way. But Miyazaki's From Up On Poppy Hill, a post-nuclear teen soap taking place during Japan's reconstructive '60s, faces little comparable anxiety of influence.
For one, it's based on Tetsurō Sayama and Chizuru Takahashi's shojo manga Kokurikozaka kara, serialized in 1980. And while Hayao Miyazaki takes responsibility in the credits for the planning of From Up On Poppy Hill — making it the first of Studio Ghibli's full-on Miyazaki family affairs — he co-wrote the screenplay with Keiko Niwa.
For his part, Goro Miyazaki confidently helms the splendidly rendered rest without showing off, creating a meditative snapshot in time that won't find much company in the megacinema dominating pop tastes. But following tradition, which is what his movie is about, Miyazaki has anchored his post-nuclear romance to a resourceful girl named Umi (Once Upon a Time's Sarah Bolger) who, having lost her father during the Korean War, eventually finds love in a young man named Shun (Star Trek's Anton Yelchin), who might also be his son.
Compared to the fantastical Tales From Earthsea, the patient From Up On Poppy Hill is a pretty quiet post-nuclear romance that spends its 95 minutes examining interpersonal dramas and comedies with no spirits, avatars or other creatures in sight. Studio Ghibli loyalists and new adopters are left instead with searching young men and women trying to figure out what to do with themselves, and each other, as their once-proud nation tries to wipe the stain of its world wars clean and join a new geopolitical normal, symbolized here by Tokyo's 1964 Olympics — Asia's first overall and Japan's makeup for 1940, which was taken away during World War II and given instead of Helsinki.
This sense of an uncomfortably shared past permeates From Up On Poppy Hill's slow-going cinema. Umi and Shun bring the sexes together to restore a dilapidated building called the Latin Quarter, home to their high school's various clubs, which is scheduled for demolition to make way for the radical reconstruction accompanying Tokyo's high-profile return to the world stage. Miyazaki's benevolent film leaves little doubt that their efforts will find a bureaucratic empath to make it happen, and one eventually shows up in the sage but also hilarious school chairman Tokumaru (Beau Bridges). It's in the comical drudgery of his Tokyo office where the world slows down enough for Miyazaki's characters to grow impatient. It's funny watching them almost wishing From Up On Poppy Hill would speed up already.
That comedy is met most excellently with the brainy clashes of the Latin Quarter's multidisciplinary frathouse, whose geek beefs often read out like absurdist comedy. "What are girls doing here?" one astronerd asks another when Umi and Sora show up. "I have no idea," another mutters, both never looking up from their scope. "Try experimenting with something that actually exists!" the chemists loudly heckle the resident philosophy geek. "How can we make archaeology cool again?" one archaeologist earnestly asks another. "We can't," the other deadpans.
All the melodrama and nerd jokes are warmly wrapped up in composer Satoshi Takebe's contemporary score, which playfully skips from Japanese jazz to doo-wop to surf without getting too saccharine. Miyazaki's film is careful not to veer to far from its root nuclear trauma. "We have suffered the scars of war, and we have emerged a stronger people, a peaceful people, a modern society," one student argues during a heated school debate on the demolition. "We cannot stand in the way of progress."
But progress can stand in the way of itself, as Miyazaki's second film illustrates. One of the bad raps on Goro is that he has perfected his father flawless artistic tradition, but has much farther to go in the storytelling department. It's a predictable criticism: From Up On Poppy Hill sometimes feels aimless and delayed, with pockets of missed opportunities to inject more of everything (drama, laughs, action) to inflate its scale.
But today it's almost a defiance to be so chill. For that anomalous achievement, From Up On Poppy Hill earns a measured respect, on its own sweet terms. I spoke with Goro Miyazaki about Poppy Hill, the balance of nature and technology, the anxiety of his father's prodigious influence and more.
io9: What attracted you to this shojo manga, and why did you decide to make it into a film?
Goro Miyazaki: The original “shojo manga” (comics for teenage girls) was created in the '80s, but the spirit of student-led activism, which took place in the '70s, was at the core of the story and gave it a sense of time and history. Also, the protagonist had a dark side to her, which was atypical at the time, and it left an impression on me. I think these reasons prompted me to make a film adaptation.
io9: What do you think From Up On Poppy Hill communicates about friendship and love, and especially economic and cultural demolition?
Goro Miyazaki: There are three things that I reflected on while making this film. First of all, prioritizing economic rationality does not necessarily bring people happiness. Secondly, if we do not learn the history of our existence, we will lose our sense of belonging. Third, I questioned what it means to be loyal to someone. To sum it up, the question is: How should we live?
io9: What have you learned from your experiences with Poppy Hill and Earthsea about adapting manga and novels to animation?
Goro Miyazaki: I see the process of adapting an original work into a film as taking a journey into the original and expressing — as an image —what I experience, feel and think during that journey. The difference between LeGuin’s novel and the film adaptation of Tales from Earthsea is that the novel is a rendition of the landscape that the original writer envisioned, and the film adaptation is the landscape that I perceived from reading the original novel.
io9: Your growing filmography screens like that of your father's, but it's also distinct. How would you describe your similarities, and what you learned from him, as well as your differences?
Goro Miyazaki: The difference between Hayao Miyazaki and me is the difference between the time periods in which we have been living, the difference between our generations. My father’s generation lived through and after the war, and basically had nothing. They forged their paths with their own hands, and created their whole world themselves. Therefore, they consistently try to be proactive.
On the other hand, by the time my generation came of age, everything was already available to us. I think this made us somewhat passive. I think this is one of the reasons why the protagonists I portray are different to those of Hayao Miyazaki.
io9: Do you feel pressure to stand apart from the family name? Or is carrying on a creative family tradition its own reward?
Goro Miyazaki: We are, of course, father and son, so I think that I take after him. One example is that we are both pessimistic optimists. My father’s existence is, for me, both a source of pride and great pressure. I believe that finding a path that is different than my father’s will free me from this pressure.
io9: Most of Miyazaki and Ghibli films have brilliantly analyzed the balance between nature and technology. How concerned are you about catastrophes like climate change and nuclear power, especially in Japan?
Goro Miyazaki: Nature and technology provide great benefits to us, but on the other hand, they are also constant threats. Human beings must be humble in acknowledging the existence of these terrifying threats. The moment we forget about their formidable potential, they will bare their teeth. Art cannot explain that terror, but it can explain that sense of humility.
io9: What's next for you? Are you and your father working on anything together?
Goro Miyazaki: There are no plans to work on a production with my father. Instead, I believe that my mission is to see what I can do when I have distanced myself from his influence. In terms of my next project, I am still in preparation and I cannot talk about it right now. What I will say is that I want to create something for children.
My thanks to Anna J. Takayama, who translated this interview from Japanese. All images courtesy of GKIDS.