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Screened at the 2012 Terracotta Far East Film Festival.
“From Up on Poppy Hill” is the latest offering from legendary Japanese animation house Studio Ghibli, and is another in their line of nostalgia themed romances, following up on the likes of “Whisper of the Heart” and “Ocean Waves”. Interestingly, the film marks the return of Miyazaki Goro, his first since the disappointingly received fantasy “Tales from Earthsea” back in 2006, and sees him working and co-scripting with his father Miyazaki Hayao for the first time. Based on a manga by Sayama Tetsuro, the film features the voices of up and coming actress Nagasawa Masami (“I Wish”) and Okada Junichi of boy band V6 fame as the two leads. The film proved a huge success at the Japanese box office, ranking as the country’s highest grossing domestic hit of 2011, and also won Animation of the Year at the 35th Japan Academy Prize ceremony.
The film takes place in 1963 in Yokohama in the run up to the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, and follows a 16 year old high school girl called Umi (voiced by Nagasawa Masami), who lives in a large boarding house on a hill with her grandmother and siblings. Every morning, she raises a signal flag for passing ships in memory of her father, who died at sea some years back during the Korean War. At school, she becomes involved in the student effort to save the old Latin Quarter clubhouse which has been marked for demolition, and in the process finds herself drawn to schoolmate Shun (Okada Junichi), who sees her flags every morning from his father’s tugboat. Though the two seem the perfect couple, Shun discovers a shocking secret from the past which threatens to ruin their blossoming love.
“From Up on Poppy Hill” is a pretty straightforward film in terms of its ambitions, the father and son team of Goro and Hayao Miyazaki clearly aiming primarily aiming for a misty eyed, warm hearted exploration of fond childhood memories. The film certainly achieves this, and is in many ways an utterly charming affair, a piece of note perfect nostalgia which shows an amazing eye for detail, even the smallest trivialities being brought to life through obvious loving care. It’s in this which the film really excels, successfully capturing the spirit of its time and place, and despite having faced up to problems during production brought about by the 2011 Japanese earthquake and tsunami, the film is visually quite stunning. The animation is superbly evocative and artistic throughout, helping to make for an atmospheric experience which really does pull the viewer into its gorgeously quiet world. Goro shows far more confidence as director than he did with “Earthsea”, and as well as being beautifully designed, the film features some impressive and fun set pieces, with the mass cleaning of the clubhouse by a small army of students standing out in particular.
The film also does a decent job with its central love story, mainly since Umi and Shun are reasonably well written and likeable characters, if a little too similar to others from previous Ghibli outings. The pure love theme works well enough, and though the film is essentially safe, predictable stuff and suffers from a rather rushed and daft twist, it comes together in somewhat pleasing, vaguely moving fashion. At the same time, the film also deals with themes of modernisation and the preservation of the past and memory, with obvious parallels drawn between the demolition of the beloved clubhouse and its traditions, and the spreading industrialisation of the country. This is largely relegated to a background concern, and never really amounts to much, though it helps to hold the interest without adding much depth.
As a result, it’s hard not to harbour a sneaking suspicion that there’s really not much to “From Up on Poppy Hill” aside from its captivating visuals and seductive nostalgia – though this is very much in line with the films modest ambitions, and so really isn’t much of a criticism. It’s easy to see why the film proved so popular, and it’s certainly a very worthy and enjoyable addition to the Ghibli canon, and one which definitely sees Miyazaki Goro maturing and growing as a director.
Goro Miyazaki (director) / Tetsurô Sayama (original story), Hayao Miyazaki, Keiko Niwa (screenplay), Tetsuro Sayama, Chizuru Takahashi (comic book)
CAST: Masami Nagasawa … Umi Matsuzaki (voice)
Junichi Okada … Shun Kazama (voice)
Keiko Takeshita … Hana Matsuzaki (voice)
Yuriko Ishida … Miki Hokuto (voice)
Rumi Hiiragi … Sachiko Hirokôji (voice)
Jun Fubuki … Yoshiko Matsuzaki (voice)
Takashi Naitô … Yoshio Onodera (voice)
Shunsuke Kazama … Shirô Mizunuma (voice)
Nao Ohmori … Akio Kazama (voice)
Teruyuki Kagawa … Tokumaru rijichô (voice)