By Don Simpson | April 2, 2013
Director: Goro Miyazaki
Writers: Hayao Miyazaki (screenplay), Keiko Niwa (screenplay), Tetsurô Sayama (original story, comic), Chizuru Takahashi (comic)
Starring: Sarah Bolger, Anton Yelchin, Gillian Anderson, Christina Hendricks, Aubrey Plaza, Jamie Lee Curtis, Bruce Dern, Charlie Saxton, Chris Noth, Beau Bridges, Isabelle Fuhrman, Alex Wolff, Emily Osment, Ron Howard, Jeff Dunham, Jake Steinfeld
The year is 1963 and Japan is still recovering from the devastation of World War II, as well as additional losses during the Korean War. The upcoming 1964 Olympics in Tokyo have given Japan an excuse to shed its past and rebuild into something new and modern. Unfortunately, this also includes aspects of the past that Japanese society would like to remember.
One such beloved relic of the past is a dusty old school clubhouse. This decrepit building houses all of the school’s clubs, including the student newspaper, lending it an infinite amount of sentimental value to the students. The clubhouse represents freedom for the students to pursue intellectual and creative interests without adult supervision. They philosophize, debate and create together among like-minded peers. Unable to see how this opportunity could exist inside any other structure, Shun (voice: Anton Yelchin) leads a grassroots movement to stop the clubhouse from being knocked down.
Umi (voice: Sarah Bolger) is another student, but she spends a majority of her time running her family’s household. After losing her father at sea during the Korean war, Umi has taken charge of the cooking and the cleaning for her family. The burden of these responsibilities does not leave her any time to pursue extracurricular activities; but by skillfully juggling school and work, Umi has grown into a responsible and well-mannered teenager.
On one fateful day, Umi meets Shun. They are both too shy to act on their obvious attraction for each other. Regardless, Umi and Shun are soul mates who are destined to be together. Shun recruits Umi to help him with the campaign to save the clubhouse, and Umi’s insight into the situation proves to be invaluable. Umi and Shun continue to grow closer and closer until they discover some eerie similarities in their family histories.
As Japan tries to escape its past, Umi and Shun must face their individual ancestries, determining where and how precisely their pasts might have intertwined. Having never let go of her father’s memory, the past is easier for Umi to face; since Shun was adopted, his past is a Pandora’s box waiting to be opened.
The top-grossing Japanese film of 2011 and winner of the Japan Academy Prize for Animation, From Up on Poppy Hill is a remarkably straightforward and realistic representation of young love. Other than its vibrant color palate and skillfully detailed artistry, From Up on Poppy Hill is practically unrecognizable as a Studio Ghibli production. Whereas most Studio Ghibli films have ventured deep into the realm of fantasy, the animation of From Up on Poppy Hill plays no differently than a traditional, live-action teen drama.
So, why utilize animation to tell a story that could just as easily be conveyed with actors in a live-action narrative? Well, this approach does give director Goro Miyazaki (son of Hayao Miyazaki) the chance to visualize his version of Japan’s history without relying upon the construction of elaborate sets, props and costumes. In other words, it helps keep production costs manageable while also providing Miyazaki more auteuristic control. The animation also lends the story an innocent and pure perspective, like that of a child, rather than through the mature lens and form of live-action dramatic cinema. Additionally, the telling of a sincere and heartfelt teen drama in an animated form is incredibly unique. Hollywood animation studios have never produced a story that is as naturalistic as From Up on Poppy Hill. There might be a good reason for that, and I am left wondering if United States audiences are ready for low-key, realistic stories told by way of animation.