Miyazaki craftsmanship tells small-scale story in 'Poppy Hill'
The latest from Japanese anime master Hayao Miyazaki's famed Studio Ghibli is From Up On Poppy Hill. Directed by Goro Miyazaki, the maestro's son, it's an unusual outing for Ghibli in that the story features no overt eco-advocacy message nor any magical, otherworldly elements like gods, demons, or witches. Instead, it's a simply-told tale of two Yokohama teenagers facing life-sized issues of identity, loss, and love in the real world.
Goro Miyazaki received mixed reviews for his feature debut, Tales From Earthsea, an anime adaptation of Ursula K. Le Guin's complex fantasy novels. Maybe that's why he plays it straight and simple in Poppy Hill. Based on a manga comic by Tetsuro Sayama and Chizuru Takahashi, the story is set in 1963, the year before Japan will host the Summer Olympics in Yokohama. It's an important symbolic step for Japan, to rise out of the ashes of war to carve out a new, forward-looking place for itself on the international stage.
Also shaped by the past, but hopeful for the future, is Umi (voice of Sarah Bolger, in this English-dubbed version). Her beloved father was the captain of a supply ship during the Korean War. When Umi was little, he taught her to read ship's signal flags, which they hoisted on a pole in their yard. Her father's ship went down in the war, but Umi continues to hoist her signal flags every morning in hopes that in some way, her father might find his way home to her.
With her mother off studying in America, Umi, her younger sister, and their little brother have all moved in with their very traditional grandmother (Jamie Lee Curtis). She has opened up her home on a hill overlooking the harbor as a boarding house for single women working in the city. It's Umi's job to get breakfast for everyone in the morning before she and her siblings leave for school, and to cook dinner after school in the evenings.
One day at school, Umi notices the boy, Shun (Anton Yelchin); she can hardly help it, after his dramatic leap from a balcony into a large fish pond on campus to publicize the plight of the club house. This is a ramshackle old ruin of a building off-campus; the students call it the Latin Quarter and it's the meeting place for all their extracurricular activities—the Archaeology Club, Literature Club, Philosophy Club, the school newspaper, etc. The club house is scheduled for demolition to make way for Olympics construction, but the hundreds of kids who use it are determined to save it.
Joining the campaign to save the club house, Umi becomes friends with Shun—who has seen her signal flags from the harbor and wondered who raises them. Shun, too, is irrevocably touched by the past, but even as the two teens become close, a family secret threatens to separate them forever.
Even without magical elements, the movie looks pretty enough, particularly the lush and painterly backgrounds of landscapes, the waterfront, and bustling street scenes (including a jazzy tram trip to Tokyo). Shots of the kids flying downhill on Shun's bicycle offer some spectacular depth-of-field images in motion. To counter the visual monotony of dozens of boys and girls in school uniforms in the school scenes, Miyazaki's team works hard to individualize faces while playing many of these scenes for laughs: a "debate" between rowdy boys that can't help but escalate into a shouting-match melee; an army of girls in aprons wielding mops and buckets marching in to clean up the club house.
But character animation is minimal. Faces show little expression, eyes never blink, and when the students pause to sing (which happens distressingly often), their mouths open so uniformly wide, they look like Muppets. And while the story is sweet, the storytelling is gradual and matter-of-fact, without much in the way of passion or surprise. Without the epic thematic and/or visual sweep of the classic House of Miyazaki films, it's difficult to sustain interest in this much smaller-scale story, even for 90 minutes. Miyazaki fans should appreciate the subtlety of the craft in Poppy Hill, but viewers coming to anime for the first time might want to start with something a little more dynamic.
FROM UP ON POPPY HILL **1/2 (out of four)
With the voices of Sarah Bolger, Anton Yelchin, Gillian Anderson, and Jamie Lee Curtis. Written by Hayao Miyazaki and Keiko Niwa. Directed by Goro Miyazaki. A Gkids release. Rated PG. 91 minutes.
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