DVD Release Date: September 3, 2013
Theatrical Release Date: March 29, 2013
Rating: PG for mild thematic elements and some incidental smoking images
Genre: Drama
Run Time: 91 min.
Director: Goro Miyazaki
Cast: Voices of Sarah Bolger, Anton Yelchin, Chris Noth, Gillian Anderson, Bruce Dern, Jamie Lee Curtis, Christina Hendrix, Aubrey Plaza, Beau Bridges, Ron Howard

Hayao Miyazaki (My Neighbor Totoro, Ponyo) has made inroads into America thanks to the advocacy of a master animator on these shores: Pixar’s John Lasseter reveres Miyazaki’s work and the films of Studio Ghibli, through which Miyazaki made his best known films.

With Miyazaki now in his 70s, the old guard of Japanese animation is starting to give way to the new, but Miyazaki’s fingerprints are evident on recent films he hasn’t directed. Studio Ghibli’s previous American release, The Secret World of Arrietty, was directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi but was adapted from Mary Norton’s book by Miyazaki himself. Now there’s From Up on Poppy Hill, the credits for which reveal that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree: this film is directed by another Miyazaki—Goro, the son of Hayao—but the results of the son’s direction are just as effective as that of his father.

We don't find any of Hayao's soot gremlins or forest spirits in Poppy Hill, however. This is a coming-of-age story aimed more at adolescents than at younger children. Umi (voice of Sarah Bolger, The Spiderwick Chronicles) lives in early 1960s Yokohama with her grandmother, sister and boarders. Her mother is away in America. Each morning she raises flags that signal the ships at sea—a gesture, we learn, that is her way of reaching out to her father, presumed dead after his ship hit a mine during the Korean War.

Umi is a lonely soul until she meets Shun (Anton Yelchin, Star Trek), editor of his school’s newspaper, and they become caught up in efforts to save a rundown facility that serves as headquarters for the philosophy, literary and chemistry clubs. The place represents, in the words of one of the students, "the flame of culture" for a country still recovering from the effects of World War II and the Korean War. On the cusp of the Tokyo Olympics, Japan is hurtling toward its future with little regard for its past. Or so some characters believe.

The tension between a forward-looking optimism and a determination to hold on to tradition marks much of the story, just as Umi’s and Shun’s family histories dominate their friendship and future prospects. When one character tells a group of onlookers, "You can’t move into the future by forgetting the past," someone in the crowd shouts back, "Anarchist!" and the event descends into a melee. When the building that houses the student clubs is to be razed, Umi reminds others that the place "makes us feel connected to our past."

The shared connection between Umi and Shun’s pasts will define the appropriateness of their relationship and will raise uncomfortable questions. At one point when Shun’s relationship with Umi seems uncertain, he exclaims, "It’s like a cheap melodrama!"

But don’t be scared off. The characters do the right thing, as difficult as it is, and just as Umi and Shun honor traditional morality and cultural expectations, the film’s twists and turns honor their mature decision-making. One wonders if a film about American youth in the 1960s would follow the same trajectory, or prove half as moving as From Up on Poppy Hill, which packs a surprising, emotional wallop.

The melancholy, searching tone of From Up on Poppy Hill never becomes maudlin or saccharine. The film is instead poignant, at times challenging, and ultimately hopeful, helped not only by the expected visual elegance but by a jazz-filled soundtrack that adds yet another dimension to the outstanding end product.

Those who desire artful animation absent any talking animals, crass humor and the desperate, lowest-common denominator appeal of so much American animated fare finally have a film to seek out and cherish. From Up on Poppy Hill builds slowly, revealing its secrets in due time, and it rewards the patient viewer.

On the evidence of From Up on Poppy Hill, the Miyazaki legacy is in good hands.

CAUTIONS

  • Language/Profanity: None
  • Alcohol/Smoking/Drugs: Some smoking
  • Sex/Nudity: None
  • Violence/Crime: A boy jumps from a roof into a pool, but hits bushes on the way down; a cut from shaving; a student melee, with one student shown putting another in a headlock; a ship is shown hitting a mine and exploding; a student falls through a clubhouse floor
  • Religion/Morals/Marriage: Reminiscence of young love and parental disapproval; discussion of family lineage and what makes someone a child, a parent and a family unit; discussion of the loss of a child; Umi is referred to as a goddess of good luck, as heaven-sent, a little angel; a daughter sends her absent father a visual message that means, "I pray for your safe return;" a philosophy student exclaims, "We have co-opted every gift of the gods!"

Questions? Comments? Contact the writer at crosswalkchristian@hotmail.com.

Publication date: April 8, 2013