March 28, 2013
Is any animated feature produced by the Japanese treasure known as Studio Ghibli, responsible for "Spirited Away," "Ponyo" and others, capable of capturing a mass American audience's attention? Good question, especially in a box-office cycle dominated by "The Croods." So let's get it out of the way. The answer is, maybe not. There. Now we can talk about "From Up on Poppy Hill," one of the shimmering highlights of the year.
Like "Ponyo" and last year's "The Secret World of Arrietty," "From Up on Poppy Hill" has arrived here in a slightly revised English-language edition. The voices are provided by a cast including Gillian Anderson, Aubrey Plaza, Jamie Lee Curtis and, more central to the narrative, Sarah Bolger and Anton Yelchin. Hayao Miyazaki adapted the script from the 1980 manga, or graphic novel. Miyazaki's son, Goro, directed "Poppy Hill," and in the story's realistic setting (Yokohama, 1963) and absence of supernatural elements, it's a marked departure for the studio. And yet the glide and flow of the story feel not quite of this world.
The heroine, Umi, lives in and manages a boardinghouse overlooking the harbor. Her mother is away studying in the U.S.; her father was a casualty of the Korean war, lost at sea. Each day Umi raises flags wishing seafarers safe passage. A boy at her school, Shun, writes a poem for the school paper about her. The ragtag all-male newspaper staff resides in joyously messy surroundings in a dilapidated but marvelous building, also housing the archaeology club and the philosophy club and a few others, known as the Latin Quarter.
It's scheduled for demolition, and one aspect of "Poppy Hill" deals with how Umi and Shun mount a save-the-dump-we-love campaign among their fellow students, while they gradually become friends, then innocently smitten, and then ... well, then, the girl and the boy learn that they may be half-siblings. (One of them reacts: "It's like a cheap melodrama!") And Shun, wrestling discreetly with his tangled feelings, says there is only one way to combat their heartache: "I guess we stop feeling how we feel."
The way this potentially tragic plot development is handled, you know "Poppy Hill" has the surest of touches. Screenwriter Miyazaki acknowledged this tricky revelation in his initial proposal, reassuring his future audience that "there won't be any shinju (double suicide) pacts." There's something wonderful and sane in the way "Poppy Hill" allows Umi and Shun their mixed-up feelings for each other; the film, like its key characters, is at once childlike and grown-up. There's a similar paradox at work in the visual design's blend of modernity — Tokyo's imminent hosting of the 1964 Olympics sets the tone — and the timeless appeal of tugboats chugging on the water, and flags flapping in the breeze.
Like some of the nuttier Shakespeare romances, "Poppy Hill" revels in coincidence, dawning sexuality and an ardent belief in the power of goodness. It's pure of heart, in other words. It's also extremely winning in its depiction of a student population discovering its collective freedom. The Miyazakis' picture, which makes lovely use of the chart-topping early '60s hit "I Shall Walk Looking Up" (known in the U.S. as "Sukiyaki"), takes everything it should take seriously. It does so with a light touch — another paradox, and another reason I liked it even better than the last couple of formidable Studio Ghibli efforts. Gary Rydstrom oversaw the English-language version of "Poppy Hill," with evident care and love. Your kids may well fall in love with it, if you help them find it.
'From Up on Poppy Hill' -- 4 stars
MPAA rating: PG (for mild thematic elements and some incidental smoking images)
Running time: 1:31
Copyright © 2015 Chicago Tribune Company, LLC