Fans of Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli will delight at the latest English release of From Up on Poppy Hill, which saw a limited theatrical release. Sadly, no theaters nearby played the movie when it was released in March, but thanks to Gkids and Cinedigm, admirers here in the US can snatch up a copy of the movie on DVD or Blu-ray.
Directed by Goro Miyazaki, Hayao’s eldest son, and co-written by Hayao and Keiko Niwa, it is based on an ‘80s Japanese manga series by Tetsurō Sayama and Chizuru Takahashi. The story revolves around a headstrong young girl named Umi, voiced by Sarah Bolger in the English version. Her father died fighting in World War II and while her widowed mother is in the US studying, Umi is helping her grandmother run a boarding house up on a hill overlooking the sea. Religiously, she raises nautical flags from their garden to ships in the sea below – her sole homage to her deceased father in an innocent (somewhat naïve) hope that he will use the flags to find his way home. Between that, her boarding house duties, and school, she is also caught between her growing feelings for a boy named Shun and a shared past threatening their budding relationship.
Set in Yokohama in 1963, the movie subtly portrays that although the war had ended and there was a growing excitement and anticipation about the upcoming Olympics, the scars of the past still haven’t healed. This tradition-versus-progress is a recurring theme in Miyazaki’s works and was more outwardly depicted through the Latin Quarter restoration project in the movie. A dilapidated, but charming building on school grounds, The Latin Quarter is up for a school board vote on whether it should be demolished and replaced with a newer, more modern building. Umi and Shun spearhead the movement to restore the Latin Quarter to its former grandeur and lobby for it to be kept standing.
In the age of 3D cartoons and CGI, few use the medium as effectively and successfully as Miyazaki in tackling the human condition. Even more rare is using old school techniques to create stunning masterpieces in celluloid and From up on Poppy Hill is no exception. The artwork and attention to detail very easily transport viewers to what it would be like in Yokohama in 1963 and keenly evoke emotions with something as simple as a look between Umi and Shun.
What truly sets this movie apart is, unlike his other movies where there is almost always a fantasy-meets-reality twist, this is purely anchored in the world as we know it – no mystical cat or witches or magical floating bathhouse to convey real-life contradictions faced by people just like you and me. Absent is an enemy character to defeat in this movie with the real ‘enemy’ being that the war had pushed people into making difficult choices, which then had a profound effect on the younger generation. The movie ends abruptly however, not giving some supporting characters a chance to develop.
While this sounds very serious – especially for a cartoon movie, it is not as intense as another Miyazaki movie, Grave of the Fireflies, a very dark story also set in postwar Japan. From Up on Poppy Hill’s more cathartic ending and seeing the beautiful visuals alone make it worthwhile to watch. Dubbed with a star-studded cast along with three hours of bonus content, this is another Miyazaki work not to be missed. And on the heels of Miyazaki announcing his retirement from creating feature-length films, it seems that we only have a few more opportunities to be captivated by this master storyteller.
Note: The From Up on Poppy Hill review was written based on a retail DVD provided to us.