From Up on Poppy Hill (reviews - page 4)

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21 March 2013

Teenagers, and a nation, come of age in another Miyazaki triumph

By Alonso Duralde

LOS ANGELES ( - There's no shortage of magic in "From Up on Poppy Hill," although it's not the kind people usually associate with the work of master animator Hayao Miyazaki.

His earlier classics gave us a cat-bus ("My Neighbor Totoro"), an ambulatory house ("Howl's Moving Castle") and a pilot turned into a pig ("Porco Rosso"), among other delights. "From Up on Poppy Hill" deals strictly with more human concerns.

Still, in an age where 2D animation is being pushed aside by computer-generated, three-dimensional efforts, the gorgeous hand-drawn majesty of the films of Japanese powerhouse Studio Ghibli are magic enough for anyone who loves movies.

Miyazaki recently turned 72 and has chosen to segue out of the director's chair; this time, he hands the reins to his son Goro ("Tales from Earthsea"), although the elder animator co-wrote the screenplay (with Keiko Niwa, based on the graphic novel by Tetsurô Sayama and Chizuru Takahashi) and participated in the film's planning process.

The end results may be a little talky and understated for the youngest of viewers, but fans of Hayao Miyazaki - and they include pretty much every other animator working today - will find this tale enchanting.

Set in Yokohama on the eve of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, the film focuses on young Umi (voiced in the U.S. version by Sarah Bolger), who begins each day raising signal flags in honor of her father, who never returned from his seafaring voyages. She has her hands full feeding the tenants of her grandmother's boarding house but finds time to get involved in a student protest against the demolition of a beloved school clubhouse.

Leading the drive to save the building is her classmate Shun (Anton Yelchin), and while Umi and Shun find themselves drawn to each other, they also discover secrets of the past that could potentially derail any potential relationship.

"From Up on Poppy Hill" isn't overloaded with plot, but we get to know these characters intimately, not only in the way they relate to each other but also in the context of this very specific time and place: While these teens are coming of age, Japan is just beginning to recover from the devastating trauma of World War II and the Korean War, with the upcoming Olympics clearly seen as a symbol of the nation's return to prominence on the global scene.

The screenplay deftly balances the characters' intimate concerns with the nation's historic growing pains, resulting in a story that's as engrossing as the visuals are breathtaking. Even worlds away from the deities of "Spirited Away" or the forest spirits of "Princess Mononoke," the Ghibli touch is very much apparent here; almost any individual shot of the film is suitable for framing.

It's a testament to Studio Ghibli's reputation that U.S. executive producers Frank Marshall and Kathleen Kennedy have been able to assemble such an impressive ensemble of voice actors; besides Bolger ("In America") and Yelchin, the cast includes Christina Hendricks, Bruce Dern, Aubrey Plaza, Gillian Anderson, Beau Bridges, Jamie Lee Curtis, Chris Noth and Ron Howard, among many others.

This film may not be quite at the level of the very best Studio Ghibli features - if only for the modesty of its intentions - but "From Up on Poppy Hill" still stands tall among the current crop of animated films. It's a stirring reminder (alongside the above-average "The Croods") that human beings can be just as compelling a subject for animation as talking animals.

27 March 2013

From Up on Poppy Hill From Up on Poppy Hill

By Roger Ebert

This was a day I didn't see coming. The latest film from Japan's Studio Ghibli, which sets the world standard for animation, is a disappointment. Directed by Goro Miyazaki, in his first collaboration with his father, the legendary Hayao, "From Up on Poppy Hill" (2011) centers on two likable and perfectly straightforward college students who do nothing very extraordinary and are in a platonic romance.

The film's hero is actually a ramshackle old mansion named the Latin Quarter. One of those structures much loved by Hayao Miyazaki, like those in "Howl's Moving Castle" or the floating bathhouse in "Spirited Away," it's a clubhouse unfolding in all directions into performances spaces, studios, laboratories, galleries, and other precincts favored by its bohemian members. A rattling chandelier looms above its grand staircase, which like everything in the building, is caked with dust.

For this English-language version, a high-profile American cast was recruited: Jamie Lee Curtis, Beau Bridges, Bruce Dern, etc. Up on Poppy Hill, above the town, Umi (voiced by Sarah Bolger) lives with her grandmother in a boarding house overlooking the harbor. Every morning, she rises early to hoist flags as an aid to her father, whose ship sank during the Korean War. He taught her the naval language of flags, and now she dreams this skill will reunite them.

It is 1963. The Latin Quarter is earmarked for demolition to make room for Tokyo's upcoming Summer Olympics. Umi meets Shun (Anton Yelchin), a club member who gives her a lift into town on his bike, and proudly shows her around the clubhouse. She's impressed by the originality and energy of the members, joins in a demonstration to protect the clubhouse and decides it needs a good scrubbing down. With her friends she throws out junk, scrubs the floors, dusts and arranges. And just in time; they hope to persuade Chairman Jmaru (Beau Bridges) to come for a tour.

This story is accompanied by plot twists, some suspense and fairly routine developments. What's missing are the complex, baroque characters often created by Miyazaki, like the crone who runs the bathhouse in "Spirited Away," or that film's little Karl Marxian shape-shifters. The two lead characters are standard bland figures, round-faced, round-mouthed, unremarkable.

The artistry is peaceful and comforting to the eyes but not especially stirring. Given the pictorial extremes that Studio Ghibli has gone to in the past, "Up on Poppy Hill" is weak tea. Perhaps Miyazaki, as before, has correctly gauged his nation's temperament. "From Up on Poppy Hill" may not look like it was Japan's top grosser of 2011 but it most surely was.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch

18 April 2013

'From Up on Poppy Hill' offers glimpse of a changing Japan

By Joe Williams

When much of the American public associated Japanese anime with violent fantasies or trading-card cartoons, Disney imported the prestige films of Studio Ghibli, a stable of animators headed by Oscar winner Hayao Miyazaki.

The venerable director is over 70 now, and to adapt his script “From Up on Poppy Hill,” he has handed the brushes to his son Goro. Like many in the younger generation of Japanese animators, Goro Miyazaki has a style that’s both more painterly and more cinematic than the cartoonish norm, while his father’s screenplay is a classic coming-of-age story that seems suited for a live-action remake.

In 1964, Tokyo is preparing for the Summer Olympics, but in the nearby port city of Yokohama, teen Umi (voice of Sarah Bolger in this English-language dub) looks to the past. Years ago, her war-veteran father was lost at sea, and every day she composes a poem in his honor using signal flags she raises on a flagpole in the family garden.

Her hilltop laments are seen by her classmate Shum (Anton Yelchin), who works on a boat with his own father, and he writes a response in the school newspaper. Soon shy Umi and outgoing Shum become friends, and she joins his crusade to save an eclectic old student clubhouse called the Latin Quarter from the Olympics-redevelopment wrecking ball.

But after the teens trade stories about their tragic family backgrounds, their budding love gets tangled in a twist of fate that Shun likens to a cheap melodrama. But the film is wiser and gentler than that.

Although the English-language cast is unusually distinguished, with supporting performances by Jamie Lee Curtis, Beau Bridges, Ron Howard, Aubrey Plaza and Bruce Dern, “From Up on Poppy Hill” offers an evocative glimpse of daily life in a changing Japan. In the world we see from this Olympian perch, east and west and young and old are all in the same boat.

Salt Lake Tribune

26 April 2013

Movie review: ‘Poppy Hill’ a warm look at Japan’s past

By Sean P. Means

There’s a welcome gentility to "From Up on Poppy Hill," the latest import from Japan’s Studio Ghibli animation house.

In Yokohama in the early 1960s, everyone is eagerly preparing for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, and that means cleaning out the old and making room for the new. Schoolgirl Umi (voiced by Sarah Bolger) spends her days looking backward, raising semaphore flags to signal her father, a ship captain presumed dead in the Korean War. When not tending to her grandmother’s boarding house, Umi gets involved in the rescue of her school’s soon-to-be-demolished clubhouse, home to chemistry nerds, philosophers and the campus literary weekly — which is edited by Shun (voiced by Anton Yelchin), with whom Umi shares a mutual attraction.

Director Goro Miyazaki (son of the legendary Hayao Miyazaki, director of "Spirited Away" and "Ponyo") creates a warm nostalgia piece, a look at school days that is humorous and poignant. Those expecting the fantastical surreal animation that is Ghibli’s trademark will be disappointed, but Miyazaki’s graceful images and expressive characters are delightful.


15 July 2011

Review: Ghibli's From Up on Poppy Hill

By Aaron Gerow

For much of the postwar, it seemed that all too many Japanese cultural products were attempting to forget WWII, to hide either the trauma of defeat or aspects that were inconvenient to Japan’s emerging national narrative. Now a good 65 years after the end of the war, with the real trauma having faded - or the war having too effectively been forgotten – it today seems that it is the postwar that is the object of selective remembering and forgetting. As I argued in a recent article in Japan Focus, Yamato’s gruesome depiction of the war that functions to forget the postwar, or Always: Sunset on Third Street’s remembering the postwar through rose-colored glasses, are two sides of the same cultural effort to avoid dealing with what the postwar, and its history of the Cold War, American dominance, economic growth and its cost, and political turmoil, have meant for Japan.

The new Ghibli film, From Up on Poppy Hill (Kokuriko-zaka kara コクリコ坂から), is set around the same time as Always, in the years just preceding the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. This does a better job than that film at attempting to mix its nostalgia with the effort to remember history. Yet in the end it is an earnest but middling work that still somewhat selectively forgets the past.

Scripted by Miyazaki Hayao and directed by his son Goro, the film features several parallel stories, most of which focus on issues of memory and identity. The heroine, Umi, helps manage a small rooming house in Yokohama for her busy mother, while attending a nearby high school. Having lost her sea captain father during the Korean War, she raises signal flags every morning to pray for the safe passage of all the ships in the bay below. One who sees those flags is Shun, a year ahead of her in high school, who travels to school on a tug boat. It is their blossoming love – and the problem of their parentage – that serves as the central story.

The other main story is the effort of Shun and his classmates, including eventually Umi and her friends, to preserve the school’s old clubhouse, a once fine Meiji-era Western-style mansion, from demolition. Their rallying cry, uttered by the school council president, is the argument that tearing down historical artifacts is tantamount to erasing history.

For someone who has seen Japanese cities destroy much of their post-Meiji architecture, including many splendid old movie houses, I couldn’t agree with the sentiment more. A cultural policy that preserves pre-Meiji buildings while largely ignoring more modern artifacts has long been a means to define Japaneseness through tradition and thus as transcending – and in effect irrelevant to – the modern. That renders the modern unimportant to the nation, something that can be forgotten.

It is nice to see a film trying to defend something other than “good old Japan.” But if this is one of the messages of the film, it is an inconsistent one. From Up on Poppy Hill tries to preserve another historical relic: the student protest. But Miyazaki Hayao, who had contemplated filming the original manga for years, only decided to do it now because, as he says in the press notes, enough time had passed to enable depicting school protests through nostalgic eyes. This indicates that the preservation of history here is less an encounter with what is other to the present – that which can relativize and critique our world - than a present-day invention of the past through a projection of our images on history.

This becomes evident in the Yokohama presented here. While From Up on Poppy Hill has some of the attention to detail that made Arrietty memorable (see my review), that detail does not come down to the level of history. When I taught at Yokohama National University, I took my students on historical tours of Yokohama and always reminded them that this city and its port was strongly colored by an American military presence up until at least 1970. Yet none of those details appears in the film, as America is this film’s absent other (or absent father?). Talking of preserving a Western-style house in the midst of the Cold War without mentioning America is a serious case of denial.

The US-Japan Security Treaty (Anpo) protests (the subject of Linda Hoagland's new documentary) took place only a few years before this story, but only the attentive viewer will find mention of them in the film - in the scrapbooks visible in the bookcases in the school newspaper office. Locating history then becomes a pursuit of trivia little different than finding the “Ghibli” name on one of the ships.

This is thus an antiseptic, sterilized history. It is telling that, as the press notes declare, the film owes much of its vision of history to referencing Nikkatsu youth films from the early 1960s. Umi, it seems, is Yoshinaga Sayuri. From Up on Poppy Hill thus less preserves history as it really is, than offers an image of an image of history.

Such an overtly ideological reading of this film may rub some Ghibli fans the wrong way. Why not talk more about the animation? In some ways, this reading is necessary, given how too many readings of Miyazaki have attempted to emphasize his progressive politics, when in fact his films are more complex and contradictory – often to their benefit. But an ideological critique also seems warranted because the film emphasizes its romantic narrative over its status as animation. To put it differently, it is a story that could have as easily been told in a live action film. The fact it was not, however, is significant. True, animation does sell better in Japan, but in addition, I would argue that the narrative would have seemed less believable if its actors and locations were real. The disjuncture between its history and our reality would have been too much to sustain, so animation functions to ameliorate that gap.

Perhaps I am being harsh towards what is a reasonably pleasant, though ultimately undistinguished film. But choosing animation over live action was, I contend, itself an ideological choice, one that has the effect of rendering this version of history more palatable. There is a paternalist attitude in this, and I cannot but help tie it to the search for the lost father in the film, to the desire for a father figure who, like the chairman of the school board who steps in in the end, will solve the complex and contradictory nature of Japanese postwar history and identity by offering a consumable narrative backed by a strong, but benevolent authority – that is Japanese, not American.

One wonders if that father figure is what Miyazaki Hayao has become to many Japanese. (And what that means for Goro, who has yet to step out from under his father’s shadow, is another story.)

Time Out Dubai

26 March 2013

From Up on Poppy Hill

Latest Japanese animation from Hayao Miyazaki

By Sam Adams

Most fans of Hayao Miyazaki think of his company, Studio Ghibli, as a peddler of the fantastic – from the earthshaking forest sprite of My Neighbor Totoro (1988) to the porcine transformations in Spirited Away (2001). But From Up on Poppy Hill shows a different side of the Japanese animation house, one that finds equal wonder in comparatively mundane affairs. The only spirit here is the collective memory that lives in the Latin Quarter, a dusty clubhouse threatened with demolition in the run-up to the 1964 Summer Olympics.

Crossbreeding Ozu with John Sayles’s Lone Star, Ghibli’s latest mines the beauty in the daily routines of quasi-orphaned high schooler Umi (Bolger), who runs the family boarding house while her widowed mother is off in America. Her father was killed in the Korean War and every day she raises signal flags to wish sailors a safe voyage, protecting the future by commemorating the past. But history is also a minefield, as Umi learns when scrambled birth records cast an incestuous shadow on her romance with fellow student Shun (Yelchin).

Given Miyazaki’s nostalgic bent, a soft landing is guaranteed. But as with John Ford, whose beloved folk song ‘Red River Valley’ makes a cameo, a longing for yesteryear is not a blank cheque. Our collective backstory defines us, for good and for ill; to know it is to know ourselves.

Toon Zone

23 August 2011

Hope for Ghibli's Next Generation in "From Up on Poppy Hill"

By Ben Applegate

I expect From Up on Poppy Hill (Kokurikozaka kara) will strike American Studio Ghibli fans as a little strange. It's not set in a fantastic world of gunslinger samurai, flying pigs, tiny people, magic cats, Japanese gods or aquatic toddler Valkyries. Actually, its world isn't fantastic at all, and its high school-aged heroes have more private (if no less precious) priorities: to save the school's aging club building and find out the truth about their absent parents. So the common thread between this and past Ghibli films is something else: reflections on fading memories and nostalgia for disappearing treasures.

The release of a new Studio Ghibli film is still a big event in Tokyo. Months ago the theme song was already available on CD, and even before the release date a major department store opened an exhibit on The Art of Poppy Hill. Yet the fanfare for some recent Ghibli offerings has been muted relative to the glory days of Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away. The reason for that is age. Ghibli's old masters, Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, are in their seventies, and they've been turning over the reins to a new, unproven generation of directors. The transition has been choppy. Last year's Arrietty, directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi, was a delightful adventure, but there was reason to fear Poppy Hill wouldn't measure up, as it was directed by Goro Miyazaki, Hayao's son.

Goro Miyazaki's first film, Tales from Earthsea, took a richly eccentric book series and turned it into just another moralizing fantasy cliché. In the breathtaking dragon designs and beautiful landscapes there were glimpses of the sensitive Ghibli soul Goro's father has nurtured in his decades as the grand master of anime, but in the end the film merely pitted a sword-wielding hero against an evil wizard. Earthsea disappointed its creator, Ursula K. LeGuin, and angered critics so much that it actually won the Japanese Razzie for worst film. It failed to live up even to the standard of the elder Miyazaki's weakest work, Howl's Moving Castle, which for all its incoherence at least made bold storytelling and visual choices and gave us multifaceted, startling characters.

Fortunately, it appears that in trudging up Poppy Hill, Goro has also made it over anime's learning curve. He hews much more closely to his source material, a manga series from the early 1980s, and (working with his father as a screenwriter) makes one of Ghibli's most emotionally focused and intimate recent films.

Umi is a Ghibli heroine reminiscent of Taeko from Only Yesterday and Shizuku from Whisper of the Heart. It's 1963, and hurried plans are underway for Japan's great postwar coming out party: the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. In Yokohama, south of the capital, the 16-year-old girl Umi (which means "sea" in Japanese) is the hardworking head of an unusual household that includes her siblings, grandmother and a few adult lodgers. The movie opens to the sound of a metronome, and Umi's life is carefully regimented: She wakes up early to put the rice on, replace the water and flowers at the family shrine, and raise maritime flags in the courtyard outside their house, built on a steep hill that overlooks the city's bustling harbor. The flags mean “good voyage,” and raising them is a ritual of devotion to Umi's father, who died at sea.

Every day, a passing tugboat raises a reply: MER (“sea” in French), which is Umi's nickname. It's an attempt by the 17-year-old Shun, one of Umi's classmates, to gain her attention. Shun is a passionate, even reckless boy who eventually draws Umi into the fight to save the Quartier Latin, the school's aging club activities building that's been set for demolition to make way for new development. It's an uphill battle, as a large faction of students think the building, full of stargazing otaku, rabble-rousers and weirdos, is little more than an eyesore.

In the early 1960s, the struggle to preserve tradition amid modernization, or even to figure out what was worthy of preservation, was a defining issue in a Japanese society balanced between an onrushing era of astonishing economic growth and the shadow of defeat in World War II. When Shun finds a familiar photograph in Umi's room, memories of national trauma will threaten their budding romance and force them to face an emotional coming of age.

Actually, in its relatively personal scale and nostalgic motifs, Kokurikozaka has more in common with the work of the other Ghibli master, Isao Takahata, particularly his Only Yesterday, which includes flashbacks to the same time period. Visually, it is miles apart from Earthsea, which had overly simple characters and employed cheap animation shortcuts. Kokurikozaka recreates 1963 Tokyo in impressive visual detail, from Umi's old-fashioned rice cooker to the packed, flashy alleys of Ginza at night (as also captured in Mikio Naruse's heart-wrenching When a Woman Ascends the Stairs). The vibrant lighting of the city at night deserves special praise.

The romance between Shun and Umi is handled with a surprisingly mature tone.The star of the film's designs is the Quartier Latin, which looks like just a creaky Western-style building on the outside but inside is a boy's dream clubhouse, with buckets on strings transporting missives from department to department and massive muckraking banners hanging beneath its impossibly high ceiling. Books and telescopes and printing equipment and empty tea kettles are packed up against every wall. The colors are earthy reds and browns, the masculine contrast to Umi's bright home of pastel hues, and it's inhabited by a cast of oddballs with that brand of solemn, macho and completely earnest passion that can only be found in boys of this age. My favorite was the head (and perhaps sole member) of the Philosophy Club, a frighteningly huge senior (actually, he looks 35) who appears to live in an indoor shack cobbled out of wooden boards at the top of the stairs, and who defeats his own desperate attempts to recruit new freshmen by coming on far, far too strong. This film may not have any actual magic in it, but one immediately senses that this is a magical place, similar in kind to Totoro's forest and Yubaba's bathhouse if not as fantastic.

Yet the focus on a particular age of Japanese history is why I think Poppy Hill may be received as an oddity in the United States. Its references to '60s Japanese singers (Kyu Sakamoto, Atsuo Okamoto), cars (Toyopet!), buildings (Sakuragicho Station) and events offer resonant hooks for Japanese viewers and foreigners who've studied the period, but may not do much for casual anime fans of my generation. You have between now and when this is released in the States to make an elderly Japanese friend to take along. It will enrich your experience by leaps, and your new friend will doubtless treat you to something delicious for having such fabulous taste.

The score is an odd mix of jazz, ragtime and piano. At one point, it features the classic Japanese pop song “Ue wo muite aruko.” Known unfortunately in the United States as “Sukiyaki,” it actually has nothing to do with beef stew. In fact the title means, “I walk looking up (so my tears won't fall)". It was a massive hit in a Japan emerging from poverty and defeat, though there would be many growing pains along the way. (Today it has added meaning in a country facing the aftermath of the Tohoku disaster.) And as the Yomiuri Shimbun pointed out in their review it's also pitch-perfect for the journey of these two young people, who look up hopefully to the future even as they treasure their personal traditions and learn how to overcome the ghosts of the past. And it's a good omen for a long future of lovely, thoughtful and moving films from Studio Ghibli.

TV Guide

From Up On Poppy Hill: Review

By Cammila Collar

The latest effort from Japan’s Studio Ghibli (the team that brought us Spirited Away and Ponyo) is a heartfelt coming-of-age drama called From Up on Poppy Hill. A tender and often playful story with no fantasy elements at all, Poppy Hill isn’t a movie for small kids, who wouldn’t be able to follow its emotional narrative or subtle but sometimes complex ins and outs. But the film is perfect for the age group it depicts: older kids and teens -- and, of course, any adult who knows the kind of nuance and beauty that Studio Ghibli is capable of producing.

The story concerns a 16-year-old girl named Umi, who lives in the port city of Yokohama in 1964 Japan. Umi works hard before and after school to help her grandmother run the boarding house she and her younger sister Sora share with her while their mother finishes her medical degree in America, and though they lost their father during the Korean War, the strong women who board at their modest house provide warmth and support as the girls navigate their teen years. However, still grieving in her own quiet way, Umi continues to raise the signal flags outside of their house every day, wishing her father “safe voyages” even though the message is, at this point, something of a spiritual gesture.

One day, Umi reads an anonymous poem in the school newspaper describing a tremendous love and affection for a girl who raises signal flags every day. Could it be from a secret admirer? She soon finds herself drawn to a classmate named Shun, who is one of the many boys who enthusiastically run a wide variety of academic activities at the huge, run-down clubhouse next door to the school. Their connection is so strong that Umi suspects he wrote the poem. But just as their magical spark promises to heal the wound still left from the loss of her father, Shun sees a photo of Umi’s dad and is shocked to discover that it’s the same picture depicting his birth father that his adoptive parents showed him. Could they be brother and sister? Does this puzzling development explain their connection or negate it?

This plot twist sounds a little tawdry, but it’s not. It’s made abundantly clear in the story that Japan, despite fostering a culture of such fierce integrity and accountability among its young people, has only recently recovered from being hobbled by nearly ten years of war. The conflicts devastated many families as children were orphaned and deprivation increased the rates of infant mortality. This lends the film a heartening undercurrent about the importance of honoring the good things from our past even when we wish to leave the bad things behind, and allows the story to play out without any threat of it feeling like a soap opera.

The movie was co-written by Ghibli genius Hayao Miyazaki, but it was directed by his son Goro -- who cut his teeth directing an animated adaptation of the Earthsea fantasy novels as his first assignment for Ghibli. And rest assured, the younger Miyazaki has clearly earned his stars, as Poppy Hill offers just the same intimate, ultimately life-affirming kind of storytelling we’ve come to expect from the family name. The movie is also absolutely beautiful, depicting every scene with a gorgeous attention to light and texture that reminds you just how magical old-fashioned cell drawings can be -- particularly when they come from one of the most indisputably talented families in animation.