Saturday, August 31, 2013

From Up on Poppy Hill

From Up on Poppy Hill (2011)
Animation, Drama, Family, 92 minutes
Directed by Goro Miyazaki
Starring the voices (US dub) of Sarah Bolger, Anton Yelchin, Gillian Anderson, Ron Howard, Beau Bridges and Isabelle Fuhrman

Fans of Studio Ghibli won't have had much chance to see From Up on Poppy Hill. It enjoyed a brief limited release in theaters a few months ago, but the Blu-ray release on September 3rd will allow many other fans to check it out. I've seen it twice over the past two days and I urge Ghibli fans to buy the Blu-ray.

From Up on Poppy Hill looks like a Studio Ghibli film, and packs quite an emotional punch, but don't expect to see the fantasy element present in most of the studio's classics. This is more like Whisper of the Heart than Spirited Away or My Neighbor Totoro. The film is populated by good people doing good things, and there's not a villain in sight. It will appeal to anyone who remembers their childhood, school, young love, and friendship. Like most Ghibli films, it's full of great messages for us and our children.

Umi Matsuzaki (Bolger) is an eleventh-grader, living in 1963 Yokohama; she takes care of her family and a few boarders while her mother is away studying in the US. She cooks and cleans while trying to maintain her good grades, and is a responsible young woman. One day in school, she meets Shun Kazama (Yelchin). He performs a daredevil stunt to try to gain support for his campaign to save a clubhouse used by him and his friends. Umi and Shun form a friendship that is the heart of the film, but the story isn't quite so simple. This is not just a tale of teen romance; it's the story of a group of young people pulling together to achieve a common goal. Some of the twists are unexpected, and considerably more complicated than those found in typical animated fare.

One of Umi's habits is to raise flags on the pole on her balcony to signal to ships passing in the harbor. I had better not reveal the reason for that, but it's far from trivial and will help you to empathize with her situation. Umi's world is constantly changing. Her small town has a real community feel, and it's common for people to be friendly and help one another in their daily lives. The bigger picture shows Tokyo preparing for the 1964 Olympics, so there's constant pressure to join modern society and leave behind some of the antiquated life that Umi is used to.

One of the high points is seeing how the students work together to renovate their dirty old clubhouse, and the daring way in which Shun, Umi, and a friend attempt to get their message heard by someone who is actually in a position to make a difference.

Some of the themes in From Up on Poppy Hill are pretty serious. I know that I have probably failed to capture the interest of many readers, because this is another Studio Ghibli film without significant conflict. Instead of an evil villain, we are shown some of the problems young people might face while growing up. One twist is heartbreaking, and I won't dare reveal it here. However, I will say that by the end of the film, the mood is extremely positive. Like all good dramas, there must be some challenges and heartbreak in order for us to appreciate the good things in life. When the film ended, I was smiling. I wish my world could be as idyllic and charming.

I'm sure some of you are wondering about Goro Miyazaki's direction, and whether the future of Studio Ghibli is in good hands with Hayao Miyazaki's (72) retirement announced, and Toshio Suzuki (65) probably approaching the end of his career. Goro Miyazaki received plenty of criticism for Tales of Earthsea (2006), and openly admitted that he played it safe and didn't try to extend himself. From Up on Poppy Hill is a much stronger effort, and I hope it enables him to produce works of similar quality in the future. Hayao Miyazaki wrote the screenplay with Keiko Niwa, and I'm sure that it helps make the film feel familiar, and as warm as other Studio Ghibli entries.

Many of the established Ghibli traits are present. I love that the female characters are so strong; something that Pixar could learn from. The importance of family, friendship, and mutual respect is always on display. The young and the old both have a place in the world, and they care about one another. Notice also the scenes involving food. I can remember so many similar scenes from other Ghibli films. Perhaps they are present to remind us how good something as simple as a pleasant meal can be? There's also an umbrella; it's amazing how often they appear in Ghibli's other worlds.

Before I close, I must mention the Blu-ray special edition. Unlike most US Ghibli releases, this one is released by GKids and Cinedigm. The picture quality is wonderful, and the audio features both US and Japanese DTS-HD Master Audio 5.0 mixes. I was startled a couple of times by the immersive output from the rear speakers. The package includes a DVD, so you can introduce a new fan to Ghibli, and a rather informative 16-page booklet. Hayao Miyazaki talks about how the project originated, and Goro talks about his work on the film. The special features total more than three hours, and include the film in storyboard form, plus interviews with Goro Miyazaki and Hayao Miyazaki. For those who like to watch the film in the original language, the subtitles are white and unobtrusive.

Ghibli fans, or anyone who cares about life, people, and good storytelling, should not miss this release.

Overall score 4.5/5

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  1. Wow, I was really hoping it would be great. I really want Goro Miyazaki to break through all the 'hate' from Hayao fans. I can't wait to see this film... too much fantasy gets a bit stale. I like reality checks, and it looks like this is a great way to continue the Ghibli legacy :)

    1. Ben, I think you'll like it judging by your Ghibli rankings. It's Kiki's without the magic element, only deeper and more serious. It's easy to like the characters and it has that unique Ghibli feel.