Can you really call this a review? I don’t know, because a true critic would tease out the good points from the bad, leaving the inevitable conclusion up to the reader. I cannot do that however, for the simple reason that From Up on Poppy Hill is a film that you must see, regardless of whether you think you will like it or not.
Studio Ghibli has been turning out films that in all honestly, put Pixar’s best to shame. The irony of course is that for their unashamed, un-commercial style, Ghibli’s films are phenomenally successful at the Japanese box office. It is a testament to the studio’s pool of talent that there is a distinct lack of sequels in their library; a feat that Disney maintained for many decades until it caved to the inevitable pressures of short-term growth forecasts.
From Up on Poppy Hill is the latest in that long line of films to reach Western audiences as an official release. Much respect and gratitude should be given to New York-based distributor GKIDS for having the desire to bring yet another film to our shores that many in the business would consider too far outside of what could be considered a commercially viable release.
The film comes with an attachment in the form of yet another Ghibli trademark. In this case it is the surname Miyazaki and unique for the studio, both father and son are on board. The past experiences of both men on the son’s directorial debut, Tales From Earthsea, have been mended, and From Up On Poppy Hill is the result. The elder, Hayao, wrote the screenplay based on a popular manga series by Chizuru Takahashi and Tetsur? Sayama while the younger, Gor?, undertook direction duties.
The result is a curious film insofar that it retains the usual Ghibli ‘look’ but dispatches with the customary fantasy element, relying instead on a very real and heartbreaking problem that stemmed from the Japanese involvement in World War II.
The film does much more than simply portray a series of events. Rather, it grants us privy to a series of dramatic and emotional revelations for our heroes: Umi Matsuzaki and Shun Kazama. We see the calamity behind their first meeting and the subsequent bond they form and nurture.
It is this bond that forms the backbone of Umi and Shun’s story and while it gets a bit uncomfortable, the struggles that both characters face in coming to terms with reality make for some very emotional scenes, especially for Umi. She embodies the strong female protagonist that is common among Miyazaki films, but Gor? manages to make her vulnerable in ways that, say, Princess Mononoke is not. It must be said that the levels of emotion that the film managed to evoke from this blogger have not been equaled by any Western film from the past 15 years.
While it is easy to decry the presence of a substantial plot (about efforts to save a dilapidated clubhouse on school grounds), that is to miss the point of the film. Both Miyazaki’s have made known their nostalgia for a period in modern Japanese history when the shackles of the past were giving way to the optimism of the future. Such a transition period was fraught with many struggles. From Up On Poppy Hill conveys such struggles through its dual plots; that of Umi and Shun and their efforts to save an old, dilapidated clubhouse; the Latin Quarter. We see the characters in both plots attempt to reconcile actions from the past with an unknown but optimistic future.
Naturally the animation itself is superb. Once again, the notion that traditional 2-D, hand-drawn animation is no match for CGI is proven to be nothing but bluster and false promises. The Latin Quarter is beautifully rendered for the messy pigsty that it is and the lush colours of a Japanese summer manage to leap off the screen without obscuring our heroes.
The soundtrack adds a delightful level of joviality and comedy to proceedings too.
In the end, From Up On Poppy Hill returns to the humbler roots of such films as Kiki’s Delivery Service where the character’s experiences and reactions throughout the film are much more important than the plot itself. You won’t watch Poppy Hill to see whether the Latin Quarter is saved, you will watch because you want to see what becomes of Umi and Shun. Their innocence belies a complicated past and their reaction to, and reconciliation with it are what makes From Up On Poppy Hill such a wonderful film. Make an effort to see it when you can.
We managed to catch a screening of the film as part of the New York International Children’s Film Festival (NYICFF) at the IFC Center. While the overall presentation of the film was superb, I simply cannot fail to pass comment on the digital projection used.
While such systems are capable of projecting the most vivid colours in a flawless manner, I found that they completely destroy the viewing experience. Why? Well animation is created as individual drawings that when shown 24 times a second appear to move and ought to be presented in that manner.
Using traditional film, that is fine; the technology relies on only displaying one frame ever 1/24th of a second and requires our brain to fill in the rest when the screen is blank between frames.
With digital projection, we lose that; it is clever enough to project each image without the gap. The end result is that I am not watching a film, I am watching a very high-definition video on a very large screen and when you project a technique like traditional animation using such technology, the result is that ever movement is so clearly defined that it doesn’t move smoothly, it shudders.
This shuddering didn’t ruin the film for me, but did leave me pining for a good ol’ strip of celluloid that would have been darker and not as sharp, but at least I wouldn’t have to be fooled into thinking I was watching individual frames projected onto the screen.