From Up on Poppy Hill, a gentle, nostalgic romance, is a recent offering from Studio Ghibli, the venerated Japanese animation studio founded by the master animator Hayao Miyazaki. It was originally released in Japan in 2011 and made its way to the U.S. earlier this year in an English-language adaptation with a star-studded voice cast.
From Up on Poppy Hill was the top-grossing film of the year in Japan, and it redeemed the reputation of its young director, Goro Miyazaki, whose first feature, the fantasy Tales From Earthsea, was poorly received and perceived as somewhat damaging the Ghibli brand. Unlike Earthsea, this second film is a full collaboration by father and son, and the results are breezy and pleasant, with some poignant moments added to the mix. However, it greatly lacks the transcendent qualities of such classic Ghibli works as My Neighbor Totoro, Princess Mononoke, and Spirited Away, and as such, will go down as a minor entry in this studio’s canon.
The setting is Yokohama in 1963, with Japan still struggling to recover from the physical and economic devastation of World War II as it prepares to host the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, meant to showcase Japan as a modern nation. Against this backdrop is the story of Umi (voiced in the English version by Sarah Bolger), a high school girl who lives in and runs a boardinghouse on a hill overlooking the harbor. Umi lives with her grandmother and two younger siblings; her mother is a medical professor studying abroad in the U.S. Umi’s father was a sailor lost at sea during the Korean War and presumed dead. As a tribute to him, Umi raises signal flags each day sending a message wishing for the safe voyage of ships that pass through the harbor.
At school, Umi meets Shun (Anton Yelchin), who published a poem in the school newspaper about Umi’s flags, which he noticed before ever meeting her. Their first encounter occurs when he leaps from a roof at a great height into a pool right in front of her. This stunt gains publicity for Shun’s cause: saving an ancient, dilapidated club house, the “Latin Quarter,” from planned demolition to make way for modern facilities. Umi helps him by spearheading an effort to clean and renovate the place to convince the school authorities to leave the place standing. All the while, Shun and Umi are drawn to each other as they spend more time together. However, their family pasts expose secrets that complicate, and indeed threaten, their budding romance.
Nostalgia is the dominant mode, the detailed local color striving to evoke an era beloved by many Japanese. The postwar clash between modernity and tradition and the burgeoning student protest movements figure prominently. These themes, however, are so plainly stated and presented, with so little subtlety and sophistication, that their impact is greatly weakened. The romance at the center comes across too often as contrived and manipulative, with its series of revelations and reversals. “It’s like a cheap melodrama!” Shun exclaims at one point. Unfortunately, he’s mostly right.
There are some lovely sequences, such as Umi and Shun’s ride into town, set to the classic Japanese pop song “I Shall Walk Looking Up” (better known in the U.S. as “Sukiyaki”). Also, the chaotic architecture of the Latin Quarter, with its mountains of bric-a-brac exploding all over like weeds, is beautifully rendered. But there’s too much prose and not enough poetry in Goro Miyazaki’s evocation of a bygone era, indicating that Miyazaki the younger has a long way to go before he can approach the artistry of his father or Isao Takahata, the two master animators and co-founders of Studio Ghibli.
From Up on Poppy Hill is available as both a two-disc DVD and a DVD/Blu-ray combo. The bonus materials on the discs include the original Japanese language version, a celebrity cast-recording featurette, an interview with Goro Miyazaki, a featurette about the history of Yokohama, a press conference held by Hayao Miyazaki days after the March 2011 earthquake, and a 20-page booklet containing Hayao Miyazaki’s original project proposal along with a letter by Goro Miyazaki.