Mark Reviews Movies

From Up on Poppy Hill


3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Goro Miyazaki

Cast: The voices of Sarah Bolger, Anton Yelchin, Gillian Anderson, Christina Hendricks, Aubrey Plaza, Jamie Lee Curtis, Bruce Dern, Charlie Saxton, Chris Noth, Beau Bridges, Isabelle Fuhrman

MPAA Rating: PG (for mild thematic elements and some incidental smoking images)

Running Time: 1:31

Release Date: 3/15/13 (limited); 3/29/13 (wider)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | March 28, 2013

"It's like some cheap melodrama," says one of the teenage protagonists of From Up on Poppy Hill after revealing what he believes to be the truth of his heritage. The specifics of that revelation, which put two soon-to-be romantically involved youngsters in an uncomfortable position, are certainly the stuff of melodrama—tragic pasts, hidden identities, and impossible-to-fulfill love, with all of its conflict set up by circumstances outside of the heroes' control.  The story, though, is far from cheap, which once again proves the old adage that the telling of a story is just as—if not more—important than the story itself.

The film may focus on the rocky relationship of two young people who discover feelings for each other and then uncover the reason that acting on them would be a bad idea, but that is only the surface. Beneath it is a study of how the tolls of war reverberate through generations. Here is film set almost two decades—and made nearly 70 years—after the end of World War II in which its characters are still struggling with its effects on their lives and Japan.

This is a tale of confused personal identity that mirrors the uncertainty of Japan's national identity at the time. With history written by the victors and so many wartime atrocities (enacted both by and on them) to forget, the past—represented here by an old, rundown building that is but a shadow of its former glory and now housing the various clubs of high school boys—for some has become an eyesore, something to be ashamed by and to hide or demolish entirely. It is some time in the years leading up to the 1964 Summer Olympics, which is to take place in Tokyo, and Japan is hoping to show that it has embraced the modern world, leaving behind a bygone era and everything that goes along with it.

For good reason, the two characters at the heart of the film cannot and will not let go of the past; it defines who they are and holds the wish of who they wish they were. Umi (voice of Sarah Bolger) lives at the boarding house of her grandmother (voice of Gillian Anderson) with her sister Sora (voice of Isabelle Fuhrman) and an assortment of boarders who are all in a state of transition. Umi is in stasis; every day, she helps with chores around the house, prepares meals, and goes to school before returning home to start the whole process over again.

Every morning, though, she raises signal flags from a flagpole in the yard where, from the house's location at the top of a hill, all the ships leaving the Port of Yokohama can see them. The message is a wish for safe journeys and returns; it's a tradition that began with her father, a sailor who did not come home after his supply ship struck a mine during the Korean War. She still holds a hope that the flags might help to bring her father home (Her mother, meanwhile, is working in the United States).

One person has noticed the flags; he is Shun (voice of Anton Yelchin), a sailor's son and a fellow student at Umi's school. He writes a tender poem for the school newspaper, which he runs, in which he wonders about the sad girl who raises the flags each morning. Shun is a popular kid at school and is leading a campaign to stop the demolition of the Latin Quarter, an old building on campus that serves as the headquarters for the male students various clubs.

Umi is taken by Shun's passion for the cause, and he is intrigued by her compassion. They begin spending more and more time together. There's a quiet shyness to their encounters and a hesitation to reveal too much about themselves to each other that quickly endears them both to us. The material's simplicity and real-world setting and conflicts may make it seem an odd choice for an animated presentation, but director Goro Miyazaki (His father Hayao Miyazaki co-wrote the screenplay, based on the comic book series written by Tetsurô Sayama, with Keiko Niwa) and the master artists at Studio Ghibli have created a beautiful tapestry of images behind which the story unfolds, from the idyllic and almost Impressionistic foliage of the hill to the bustle of Tokyo, where Umi, Shun, and another student try to convince the chairman of the school board (voice of Beau Bridges) to save the clubhouse. There's a sequence in which Umi and Shun ride into town on his bicycle, and the blurred motion of the street beside them seems to reflect the racing of their minds as they think of everything they want but are unable to say to each other.

This is before the film's key revelation, which comes to light with the discovery of a shared photograph. From there, the story becomes far more concerned with events in the past. The camera zooms in on the details of various photos—represented by simple, black-line sketches—and we're transported to the sad stories of these teenagers and their families, devastated and torn apart by combat, air raids, and the dropping of the atomic bomb at Nagasaki. Further, the resulting confusion and secrecy as the years have passed threaten to disrupt Umi and Shun's present and future happiness and turn their relationship into a dream of what might have been, like the minimalistic one Umi has of an impossible family reunion.

From Up on Poppy Hill is a lovely and honest film, bolstered by simple and sympathetic storytelling. It possesses awareness and respect for the overwhelming influence of the past and an abiding faith in the future.

Copyright © 2013 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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