Studio Ghibli Tells a Tale of Childhood Friendship and Loss "From Up on Poppy Hill" Review

When Hayao Miyazaki directs one of Studio Ghibli’s celebrated 2D animated feature films, up until this year you could rely on them to always have an element of the fantastical woven into the deep and moving tales about family, belonging, and nature. This year’s The Wind Rises is a stark departure for Hayao in that it foregoes the magical in exchange for the realistic and historical, however for Studio Ghibli as a whole, this is nothing new. Studio Ghibli has never shied away from delivering tragic, moving films, and for proof you need look no further than their revered Grave of the Fireflies. However, that tradition of realism has continued, and this year they’ve given us From Up on Poppy Hill, a more lighthearted tale rooted in the real world circa post-World War II, but one that still packs an emotional punch while maintaining its appeal for audiences of all ages.

As a child, Umi (Sarah Bolger) would raise a series of flags each morning with the help of her father, sending a message out into the world that only those versed in flag reading could interpret. After her father died at sea in World War II, Umi maintained the practice in the hopes that someday her lost father might miraculously return, but for all she knew no one ever saw her messages. Little did she know, Shun (Anton Yelchin), a classmate of hers whose father served with Umi’s father, has taken notice, and the two strike up a friendship that only becomes closer as they work together to save a building on their school’s campus from demolition. Just as romance seemed to be blossoming, a secret about Umi and Shun’s families arises threatening to sink their friendship beneath a sea of shame and unfortunate fate. The crux of their conflict is uniquely heartbreaking for the glimmer of hope it dashes and the one it offers that’s a bittersweet consolation prize to what they thought they were building to.

The film is as beautiful an animated film as you’re likely to see offered by any other studio this year (though the offerings thus far have been pretty grim, so that’s not saying as much as I’d like), but fans of some of Studio Ghibli’s more celebrated films will notice there’s a distinct lack of detail that made Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke stand out. Chalk it up to the film being released on a much smaller scale or the nature of the story fitting better in a more basic style, but either way the story doesn’t really suffer – it’s simply noticeable if you’ve consumed a large number of Ghibli films. It still has a few moments of tremendous aspiration, however, like upon the completion of the school house’s restoration we’re treated to a tall view of the building’s heights with clotheslines and stairways that suggest the building is incredibly tall and full of character, even if we don’t have time to explore it. From Up on Poppy Hill is beautiful, but it’s tone down artistically from some of the studio’s more grander works, and it helps to know that going in so you’re not expecting something the film never intended to deliver.

One of the things I’ve always admired about Studio Ghibli is that when they decide to release a film with an English dub, they take the time to do it right. Far too often studios hire voice actors whose solution to every moment is to go overboard 500%, as if that somehow makes the moment more impactful, when really it just makes the viewer roll their eyes and switch over to the native audio with subtitles (which is normally the best and only way to watch a foreign film). With Ghibli, strong actors are called in and instead of painfully awkward line delivery, we’re treated to performances that feel right and natural with the film. This time around we get Yelchin, Beau Bridges, Jamie Lee Curtis, Aubrey Plaza (playing a character that hilariously resembles her), Ron Howard, Chris Noth, and more. The English dub is done well, and it helps to make From Up on Poppy Hill a strong addition to the Studio Ghibli collection of any English-speaking fan.

Blu-ray Bonus Features

The extras in this release are staggering, and they include Hayao Miyazaki’s proposal for the project (in the booklet insert), a clip of his speech for the press conference announcing it, a letter from his son and the film’s director Goro Miyazaki (also in the booklet), storyboards for the entire film, a featurette on the creation of the English cast recording and one on the real-life city of Yokohama where the film is set, an interview with Goro, a music video, and, finally, the film’s trailers and TV spots. For Ghibli fans, there’s more here than we’ve gotten on releases of their many other films.

"From Up on Poppy Hill" is on sale September 3, 2013 and is rated PG. Animation, Children & Family, Drama. Directed by Goro Miyazaki. Written by Tetsuro Sayama, Hayao Miyazaki. Starring Anton Yelchin, Aubrey Plaza, Beau Bridges, Chris Noth, Christina Hendricks, Gillian Anderson, Jamie Lee Curtis, Sarah Bolger.

Lex Walker • Editor

He's a TV junkie with a penchant for watching the same movie six times in one sitting. If you really want to understand him you need to have grown up on Sgt. Bilko, Alien, Jurassic Park and Five Easy Pieces playing in an infinite loop. Recommend something to him - he'll watch it.


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