(Note: this is a review of the Japanese version of the film. I haven't seen the English dub yet, but knowing that the Baronness Lee Curtis is involved means I will be seeing it soon and will update this review accordingly. Minor spoilers within, but nothing big.)
I admit it shamelessly: I'm gaga for Ghibli. The worlds that come out of the minds of Japan's premiere animation studio, especially those under the influence of Hayao Miyazaki (one of the few men I will ever confess a degree of hero worship for) are ones that I continue to revisit and rediscover throughout the course of my life. From Up on Poppy Hill is no exception, and continues the tradition of GhibliGreatness -- though it feels decidedly different from many of the studio's greater known works.
Goro Miyazaki (or, how I privately refer to him in my mind, Goro, Son of Hayao) is back at the helm in his second attempt at directing a feature length animated film, after 2006's tepidly received Tales from Earthsea. Father and son collaborated on this (Miyazaki Sr. wrote the screenplay, based on the popular manga series of the same name) and it works. Earthsea often felt like too big a film for Goro, and he seems better suited to telling this smaller, quieter story. His directorial choices here are mostly solid -- he creates quite a few "moments", with no glaring missteps, and I'm excited to see him grow and carry on his father's legacy.
From Up on Poppy Hill (I'm sorry, but I can't quite bring myself to call it "FUPH") tells the story of Umi Matsuzaki (voiced by Masami Nagasawa, making her Ghibli debut) who runs a boarding house and takes care of her grandmother and her younger siblings while her mom is studying abroad in the United States. Early in the film she meets Shun Kazama (Junichi Okada) and the bulk of the plot revolves around their feelings for each other as they try to save The Latin Quarter, a run down old building where the school's various clubs meet. This is definitely not a spiritual successor to Princess Mononoke.
If the plot sounds sort of… non-existent, that's because it sort of is. The two conflicts that pop up -- the fate of the building and the… awkward problem of shared lineage they discover about themselves -- aren't exactly going to keep you on the edge of your seat. But it's a testament to how much the film does right that really left me caring about these minor problems.
Studio Ghibli may be best known for their sprawling fantasy epics, but they also know how to tell a gentle, quiet story, and this film is definitely in the latter camp. It opens with a dialogue-free sequence showing Umi waking up and getting the boarding house ready for the day. The film is filled with these ordinary, almost mundane situations (we get to see Umi cleaning, making breakfast, doing laundry, and grocery shopping) and while some might miss wolf armies and flying witches, I appreciated how these little details drew me into the world and made it seem realistic and believable. It would have been easy to have music overpower many of these scenes, but Satoshi Takebe's score fits the tone of the film perfectly and enhances atmosphere without being distracting or jarring.
In a weird way, the fact that the story is told in such a gentle way without a lot of heightened drama actually made me care quite a bit about the small problems that do exist. At one point Umi is freaking out because she's late with preparing dinner, and she asks a couple of the girls to help her, and neither of them want to stop watching TV, and I found myself gripping the edge of the couch and feeling nervous for her. Maybe this says more about me than it does about the film, though.
That being said, there were moments in the film where I was hoping for a greater sense of urgency. Unfortunately, I think the pacing of the film may hinder its performance with American audiences. The setting -- the Japan of the 1960's, struggling to recover from the horrors of war and rediscover a cultural identity in the aftermath of one of the greatest tragedies in human history, while preparing for the Tokyo Olympics, is a situation very specific and unique to Japan. And while, for example, a knowledge of Shintoism might enhance appreciation for Spirited Away, there is enough going on in the film that it is by no means necessary. Here, I think a lack of historical or cultural context may hurt appreciation for the film overseas.
The film is at its most successful when it takes these larger questions of cultural identity and humanizes them by shrinking them into an allegory of adolescence. What better way to symbolize the Japan of the 60's than telling the story of two teenagers on the verge of adulthood trying to balance the expectations of their families with their own struggles with forging their own personal identities? This was an unexpected and beautiful aspect of the film that surprised me while never beating the viewer over the head with annoying heavy-handed allegories.
Beyond the two main characters, the town and surrounding areas -- and their inhabitants -- are beautifully realized and masterfully drawn. This feels very much like a real place inhabited by real people, and I always appreciate that in a work of fiction, particularly in animation. Studio Ghibli has always created visual masterpieces with its landscapes and nature scenes, but this was some of the finest indoor artwork I've ever seen in a film, rivaled only perhaps by the Ghibli's own The Secret World of Arrietty. Particularly, the inside of the club house and all its chaos and clutter was very well done. Everything is almost achingly beautiful, and unfortunately we know that the real world is usually not. Nostalgia, the film's underlying theme, tends to soften the harshness of the real world, and one gets the sense while watching this film that it could easily be a story that Umi is telling to her grandchildren in the present day, and this beautiful world is the world as she is telling it and as her grandchildren are hearing it.
Very little screen time is given to the secondary characters, but each one is given enough to make them believable. You see the fishmonger for about three seconds, but I can remember what he looks like, the detail of his missing teeth, and could infer almost everything I need to know about his character and his motivations for getting up to sell fish every day. I'm sorry, but I live for details like this.
Though this is very much not a fantasy film, there is still quite a bit of fun and whimsy present. Umi and Shun take a bike ride at one point that brought me back to Kiki's Delivery Service, and watching the students play around in the club house and observing the daily routines of the girls at home is a lot of fun. It's a testimony to how ridiculous these films make me when, looking at my notes just now, I seem to have scrawled "makes me want to fall in love on sunset streets" in my notebook at some point. I don't know what that means either, but I think it has something to do with this movie making you feel things.
There is never much doubt in our minds that both of the conflicts in the film will resolve themselves, and so there is never really a sense of danger or worry here, but I was surprised to find myself very invested in the relationship between Umi and Shun as well as the fate of the building by the end of the film. Again, somehow this works at humanizing the characters and making you really care about their happiness.
Whenever a new Ghibli film is released, skimming through reviews on the internet almost always brings the same results: the general consensus is always "very good, but not among Miyazaki's best," and From Up on Poppy Hill has been garnering the same kind of response. No, it may not have the sweeping epic story of Princess Mononoke, nor the whimsical insanity of Spirited Away, but it does have quite a bit of heart to it. I love that the film is not afraid of silence and lets itself unfold without beating the audience over the head with sensory overload. And while those seeking an action packed adventure film will be very disappointed, the film works on every level for what it tries to achieve: a nostalgic look back at a crucial time in the history of a country struggling to find itself on a global scale, seen through the eyes of two teenagers trying to discover themselves and each other and their own place in the world. Rating: B+
(Email Rob at Ranerdin@gmail.com)