Review: From Up on Poppy Hill (2011)

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From Up on Poppy Hill is one of the most delightful films I’ve ever seen.  Let me be clear – that includes live action, not just animated fare.  Director Goro Miyazaki, son of Hayao, directs with a deft hand.  The script by his father, perhaps the greatest living animator, hits all the right notes with characters who transcend time and place.  This film is a joy from start to finish.

The story revolves around Umi Matsuzaki, a teenager in Yokohama in 1963.  Her life is complicated but fulfilling.  She spends most of her time either at school or tending to the boarders who occupy her family’s home.  Neither parent is present when the film begins, but there’s a network of relatives which includes a benevolent grandmother who lives in the house too.  The place is a hive of activity and Umi is lucky to have five minutes to herself each morning to do one thing for herself.  She raises a series of signal flags up a flagpole that’s within view of the harbor.

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Her intense but consistent routine is broken when Umi suddenly finds herself with a crush on fellow student, Shun Kazama.  Shun produces the school paper and has written a brief poem about the girl who raises the flags, a reference Umi’s friends insist must reference her.  The two flirt a bit before unforeseen elements get in the way of their courtship.

To tell you more than that would do you a great disservice.  Suffice it to say there is a great deal more to the plot but half the pleasure is letting it unfold before you.  The story is important in that it gives the viewer a reason to stay in the world of the film, but it was the charm of the characters and their world that touched me.

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These days almost every film consists of characters trying to screw one another over in order to get the money or drugs or property or girl or something.  There’s only one American filmmaker whose films consistently defy this convention and that’s Wes Anderson.  If any of his characters want to deceive the others, it’s usually in a wrongheaded pursuit of love and belonging.  I don’t think any of Anderson’s characters are inherently evil.  This film’s script goes one step further and shows us a world wherein everyone is doing their best to help the other members of their group.  It’s a very Japanese ideal and one that’s downright refreshing to see represented so lucidly here.  None of these characters behaves selfishly.  That fact gives us a glimpse at a sort of Utopian way of life.  That’s not to say there aren’t conflicts and pitfalls in the story – there are, but they spring from the differences between people instead of their need to beat someone else to the prize.

Japanese animators have really stepped up their game in recent years.  There was a time when a picture that looked as good as this one does would be singled out for high praise.  The animation here is detailed and beautiful but it isn’t up to the standard of a major release as directed by Hayao Miyazaki these days.  This is sort of a B picture from Studio Ghibli, like The Secret World of Arrietty a short while back.  That isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  I was not a fan of Ponyo despite the fact that it got the big budget treatment.  At the end of the day, the story is everything.

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This production was particularly troubled due to the fact that it took place during one of the worst natural (and unnatural) disasters in Japan’s history–the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami which was followed by the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster.  At one point, it was assumed that the film would not be finished at all.  Fortunately for us, the Ghibli staff would not give up and they worked around the power outages to present us with this gem.  Their generous spirit inhabits every frame of the film.

The work of Goro Miyazaki on this project should not be underestimated.  Yes, the design and story are both clearly from his father, but he guided this production with the sensitivity and grace of a far more seasoned director.  He may not yet have the same long history of animated work to pull from as his father, but with any luck we’ll be seeing masterpieces from him for many years to come.  I hope he continues to develop his own, unique artistic vision.

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The sound and music in this production are both spectacular.  I watched the movie with the Japanese dialogue and subtitles and found the Japanese actors to be amazing.  I expect the English celebrity cast will be top notch even though I always prefer the original Japanese cast.  It’s interesting to note that the US release of this picture doesn’t appear to have had any involvement from Disney.  While that’s all well and good, it worries me that Disney may be backing away from their commitment to Pixar’s John Lasseter to present Hayao Miyazaki’s films in relatively high-profile releases stateside.

I hope you will have the time and wherewithal to see this fine film.  I could not recommend it more highly.

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