Sunday, September 30, 2012

From Up On Poppy Hill review

Thought I'd break up the gadget news with a film review. From Up On Poppy Hill is the latest feature film from Studio Ghibli. Nothing could be further from high tech than Studio Ghibli's old world values, but the studio's work has a special place in the heart of every nerd. My favorites are Spirited Away, My Neighbor Totoro, Princess Mononoke, and well, virtually every film they've made. They're that good. So when I heard that they released a new film, I was excited, to put it mildly.

From Up On Poppy Hill is the story of a young girl, Umi, in 1960's Japan who runs a boarding house from the home she shares with her younger sisters and grandmother in the port city of Yokohama. Every day, Umi mysteriously raises flags from her house on the hill. Then one day she meets Shun, and a romance blossoms between them as they try to save a school building that has been condemned for demolition.

That synopsis sounds nothing like the high fantasy of Spirited Away, but like many anime films, Poppy Hill is about the details of life – in this case, running a boarding house, school life in a small town, and a Japan in the 60's that was moving out of the shadow of the second world war. 

The film is directed by Goro Miyazaki, the director vilified for Tales from Earthsea, one of Studio Ghibli's rare misses in filmmaking. I was concerned about this, but after watching the movie, I'm happy to report that there was nothing to worry about. From Up On Poppy Hill was lovely, just lovely.

The movie is at its strongest when it does slice of life. The cooking sequences in particular are nuanced and charming. And it's because of these details that the characters feel real and alive. School life is also something we've seen done to death in anime, but this time around, it manages to feel fresh, thanks to the club building that the kids try to save from demolition. While not nearly as fantastic as Howl's Moving Castle, the building is a fascinating "character" in the movie, not to mention just plain fun.

In some ways, From Up On Poppy Hill resembles that other Ghibli love story, Whisper Of The Heart. It's simple. And it's about children learning to commit to something bigger than themselves. From Up On Poppy Hill however takes a distracting plot turn in the middle of the film, and it's so bothersome that you can't get it out of your head until it's resolved. This plot twist borders on the melodramatic and it doesn't fit in with the rest of the movie.

This isn't classic Studio Ghibli. While Poppy Hill focuses strongly on nostalgia and traditional values, there are significant differences from the studio's older work. The art is more modern. It's more realistic. The characters are teens and tweens. The plot isn't as simple or as profound. There are no cuddly mascots.

The thing is, it's not meant to be classic Ghibli. It's Ghibli moving on from the legacy built by Hayao Miyazaki. It's Studio Ghibli learning to find a new voice. And though at the end you feel like this movie could have been more, this new voice is nonetheless a good one. I'm positive about the future of Studio Ghibli and Goro Miyazaki.

Third World Nerd Verdict:
As long as you don't expect a Hayao Miyazaki film, you'll find lots to enjoy in From Up On Poppy Hill. The art is beautiful. The storytelling has its moments. The animation is a joy. So don't worry, Studio Ghibli fan. You'll be fine. As long as that plot twist doesn't bother you too much, that is.

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