Saturday, April 6, 2013

Film Review: From Up On Poppy Hill

"From Up On Poppy Hill"  *** 1\2 (out of ****)

Like father, like son.

"From Up On Poppy Hill" (2013) is the latest film to come to us from the Japanese animation studio, Studio Ghibli. If you are somewhat familiar with this style of animation there is a very good chance you are aware of the work that comes from Ghibli. And you are probably familiar with the screenwriter of this movie, Hayao Miyazaki, the creator of animated masterpieces such as "Howl's Moving Castle" (2005) and "Spirited Away" (2002). This time around Hayao Miyazaki has left directing duties to his son, Goro Miyazaki.

I've come a long way in my feelings towards animation. Ten years ago I wouldn't have dreamed of walking into a movie theatre to watch an animated film. I just simply didn't see the point. Animation is for children, not adults. What type of story was an animated film going to tell that would interest me? Mickey looking for Pluto? The appeal of an animated film was never going to go beyond the interest of a child. And then I saw what Pixar and Miyazaki were up to.

It was exactly ten years ago I put my first animated film on one of my "top ten" list. The movie was Pixar's "Finding Nemo" (2003). Since that time I believe, with the exception of one or two years inbetween, an animated movie has been on each of my annual lists; there was "Howl's Moving Castle", the French movie, "Fear (s) of the Dark" (2008), the Israeli movie, "Waltz with Bashir" (2008), in 2011 I placed both, Pixar's "Cars 2" (2011) and the Oscar winner, "Rango" (2011) on my list and last year the Oscar winning "Brave" (2012) was on my list. That's quite the switch for a guy like me.

What caused this change was I now saw animation is capable of being used as a tool to tell emotional, serious stories. Stories which can have broad appeal for both adults and children. Sometimes, animation can do things a live-action film just can't. There is no such thing as a topic being off limits to animation. "From Up On Poppy Hill" is an example.

Here is a movie about Japan's role in the 1964 Summer Olympics, which would be held in Tokyo. Japan sees this as its opportunity to shed the images of the past. Forget about both world wars and the "forgotten war" in Korea. Forget about the political conflicts between Japan and the United States and dropping the bomb. Japan will be front and center. It will be on the world stage. People will notice this country again. It has the special chance to make a first impression all over again. You don't want to waste these kind of moments.

And so the country has a conversation with itself. How do you shed the past? People have memories. You can't erase them. You can't destroy buildings and replace them. People will notice. A country cannot completely remove itself from its own history. This national conversation is mirrored at a school where Umi (voiced in the English language version by Sarah Bolger) and Shun (Anton Yelchin) attend. The school wants to tear down a building called "The Latin Quarter". This is where the school's newspaper is written and where most of the other academic clubs are held. But, the building is a remnant of the past. So the school wants to replace it. Though some of the students disagree. Only by confronting our past, acknowledging where we come from and who we are can we then grow and change. By knowing the past we can move forward.

This theme is one which really resonates with me. I explained to readers before, my grandparents passed away recently. They were the anchors of my family. They always told us to keep our culture, never forget who we are, where we come from, keep our traditions alive and pass them down. I've always been someone with a deep respect for the past. Whether it concerns my culture or films. Anyone who reads me on a regular basis, knows I've championed classic Hollywood cinema. I've spent hours writing about it. I'm always on the hunt for forgotten gems. Always hoping to discover new treasures from the past. So, you can see why such a story would hit me.

But you see how animation has no bounds. Could you have told this story without animation? Most certainly. And it may very well have turned out to be a well made film. But there is such pleasure in seeing the traditional hand drawn animation we find from master Miyazaki and his son. There is something so beautiful about these images. If you were to freeze the frame, you would see they are wonderful postcards. Works of art. The detail that goes into every frame. Everything has a purpose.

I've often said the work of Miyazaki can appeal to adults more than children. He writes stories about people facing real issues and deal with them in a mature way, even if magical things happen in the movie. His characters are people we can relate to.

This was something I felt was missing from "Ponyo" (2009), which I reviewed, the last film Hayao Miyazaki directed. His screenplay for "The Secret World of Arrietty" (2012) was a nice rebound. But in "From Up On Poppy Hill" Miyazaki is near the top of his game.

Goro Miyazaki has only directed one other movie, "Tales from Earthsea" (2006), it is currently available on netflix. Goro has much in common with his father. "From Up On Poppy Hill" has a strong, young female character at the center of its story in the Umi character. She is a little older than most characters in Hayao's films, but, I like that we have an older character. She can more fully comprehend the world around here and understand the challenges which face society. This film deals more with the sea, (look again at the title of Goro's previous film) than Hayao's films do. Hayao's work usually deals with aviation. Still, it doesn't bother me in the slightest, nor should it bother anyone else for that matter. Everything is perfectly suited for this story.

Yet there was one thing about "From Up On Poppy Hill" which I didn't like. It prevents me from giving the movie a slightly higher rating and calling it a masterpiece. It deals with incest. It was an element of the story which could (and should) have been completely avoided. On some level I can understand what Hayao and Goro were going for. This is a story of self-discovery. Learning who we are as individuals, where we come from. But there were other ways to get this theme across. I can only further discuss this issues by revealing plot points. So.....


Shen discovers he was adopted. He was left at the door of Akio (Chris Noth). He and his wife and just left a child. But what Shen doesn't realize is, the man who dropped him off at Akio's door, was Umi's father. Shen and Umi slowly start to have feelings for one another. But when Shen learns Umi have in fact be his sister, he must fight his temptations and keep his distance until he can fully learn the truth about where he comes from.

Why do Shen and Umi have to be related is my question? You see Umi's father was killed in a boating accident. Why couldn't Shen's father worked on the same boat? There's your conflict. Shen loves Umi. Discovers who her father is and has blamed him for his father's death. You can get the same themes across without bringing up themes of incest.


Despite this plot point, there is so much in "From Up On Poppy Hill" to enjoy. I couldn't in good faith tell people to avoid this movie. It is a very entertaining film. A near masterpiece. Goro Miyazaki will do a fine job carrying on the high standards and tradition of his father. Just keep your eye out for incest themes.