Posted on April 14, 2013 AT 08:00am
It’s no secret that Goro Miyazaki had to go all out for his next film. His first foray into anime, Tales of Earthsea, was not just a disappointment, but the worst film made in the Studio Ghibli library. Fortunately, thanks mostly to his famous dad, he has learned from his mistakes, and instead of taking the fantasy realm head-on he chose to helm a realistic slice-of-life period piece: From Up On Poppy Hill.
Taking place near the start of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics Poppy Hill follows the story of Umi (Sarah Bolger), a high school girl who each day raises a pair of signal flags, in hopes that her father will one day see them. She runs a boarding house while her mother (Jamie Lee Curtis) is studying abroad in America, and makes sure her fellow housemates are well-nourished and ready for the day. One day Umi discovers a poem in the paper regarding her flags, and wonders who wrote it. The person winds up being a fellow classmate of hers: Shun (Anton Yelchin).
Shun and his cohorts from the school’s Latin Quarter are fighting the administration to keep their beloved — albeit old — building from being demolished. Umi, thanks to her friend, is pushed into helping Shun with the school paper, and upon hearing more about the dilemma decides to help with the Latin Quarter’s cause. She recommends sprucing up the building, with hopes that maybe if it looks better it will be saved from demolition. Shun and Umi become determined to make sure that doesn’t happen, while at the same time becoming emotionally closer. However when Shun finds out that Umi has the same photo of her father, he begins to question whether or not they might be blood-related, and that love between the two of them may never be in the cards.
Co-written by Hayao Miyazaki and Keiko Niwa From Up On Poppy Hill starts off at a snail’s pace, with a day-in-the-life scenario set up in the beginning revolved around Umi. However once the Latin Quarter dilemma is brought into the plot the story becomes a lot livelier. The dialogue and actions of the characters start to rise on a more exciting, humorous scale, and the bonding between Umi and Shun has a stronger appeal. Once the possible sibling conflict comes into play the film becomes more of a showcase to Umi’s feelings, both regarding Shun and how it feels regarding her own family.
From Up On Poppy Hill also has a strong message to back its story up: in order to embrace the future, you must also always be reminded of the past. Throughout the film the Japanese establishment appear more focused with looking pretty for the Olympics, while the youth of the country want to do everything they could to preserve the importance of past generations. Sometimes these cries fall on deaf ears, while other times they get lucky. While there’s always a wonderful feeling regarding something new, having the ability to preserve something classic feels more rewarding and timeless, a moral that is spread largely throughout the film.
From an emotional standpoint this is probably the closest Studio Ghibli has ever gotten to making animated characters feel real, and not since their 1992 film Only Yesterday has their been a more believable conflict of love and understanding. As mentioned in my review of Mamoru Hosoda’s Wolf Children the drawing of human emotion in cartoon form is one of the hardest things to do in filmmaking, but Hosoda himself has been able to do it like nobody’s business. Goro Miyazaki, though, really comes close to hitting that sweet emotional spot. There are still moments of cartoonish expression, like when you see Umi crying in the arms of her mother, but the overall human spirit is there.
When it comes to the animation itself Studio Ghibli easily shows why they’re the best in the business. Whether it’s a scene of ships passing through the ocean bay, or the nasty clutter of the Latin Quarters the animators were able to cover just about every nook and cranny of the scenery and bring it brightly into the light. What came off better here in Poppy Hill than in the last Ghibli film, though, were the actions of the characters. In one scene the male students of Latin Quarter are taking part in a lively debate. People are screaming, charging at the stage, and celebrating any small victory they can reach. This particular moment in the film not only captures the energy of the students in animated form, but also their enthusiastic spirits.
Poppy Hill‘s English dub is one of the better ones made for any Ghibli film. Bolger’s Umi and Yelchin’s Shun come off as authentic, bringing about a realistic vibe and youth needed for portraying our two main protagonists. Co-stars Curtis, Gillian Anderson (who was also in Princess Mononoke), Jeff Dunham, and Aubrey Plaza also show off a great source of energy, even in their small roles. Two actors shine the brightest in their moments on screen, though: Ron Howard and Beau Bridges. The former plays a philosophy student with much oomph and pomp, the latter the high school chairman with a noble heart and a warm presence. These actors and actresses know how much of an honor it is to be involved with anything Miyazaki-related, so there is no phoning it in whatsoever from them.
Lastly there’s Satoshi Takebe soundtrack, which varies from French amour allure and New Orleans big band to a style of jazz not heard since the days of the Vince Guaraldi trio. Takebe’s score wonderfully grabs hold of the actions happening on screen and gives them either a dose of adrenaline or a calm sedative, depending on what is specifically happening. The usage of “Ue o Muite Arukō” (or “Sukiyaki,” as it’s known here) during when Umi and Shun becoming closer and when they may be drifting apart also plays well to the feelings the two characters have for one another. While it may take time for him to rise in popularity like Ghibli’s main go-to composer Joe Hisashi Takebe will easily gain that sort of notoriety if he keeps creating scores like this.
From Up On Poppy Hill is a wonderful addition to Studio Ghibli’s library. While it may not reach the mainstream appeal of Spirited Away or Howl’s Moving Castle the overall slice-of-life feel and character development will captivate any viewer, as well as pull at their heartstrings. Goro Miyazaki may not be stepping out from behind his father’s shadow, but with From Up On Poppy Hill he is peering to the side to see his brighter future ahead.
FINAL GRADE: 8.75 (out of ten)
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