Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
April 2013

From Up on Poppy Hill

Remembering the past

Nostalgic period piece 'From Up on Poppy Hill' is a slight, but exquisitely animated effort from father-and-son pair Goro and Hayao Miyazaki

From Up on Poppy Hill
Director: Goro Miyazaki
Screenplay: Hayao Miyazaki and Keiko Niwa, based on the comic by Tetsur Sayama and Chiziru Takahashi
Starring: The voices of Sarah Bolger, Anton Yelchin, Gillian Anderson, Charlie Saxton, Christina Hendricks, Aubrey Plaza and Beau Bridges
Rated PG / 1 hour, 31 minutes
Now playing in limited release
(out of four)

It's strangely appropriate that a movie ostensibly about remembering and honoring your past is also something of a symbolic passing of the torch from one generation to the next. And how fitting that a story about a son piecing together the mysteries of his father should be directed by a son from a script by his father.

Such is this case with From Up on Poppy Hill, the latest American import from Studio Ghibli and the second directorial effort from Goro Miyazaki, son of the legendary Hayao Miyazaki.

The two collaborated on Goro's debut feature, 2006's Tales from Earthsea, for which his dad received a story credit, based on the writings of Ursula K. Le Guin. This time around, Hayao co-wrote the screenplay with Keiko Niwa (also a collaborator on Earthsea), based on Tetsur Sayama and Chiziru Takahashi's comic series.

The film is unlike many of Studio Ghibli's best-known efforts in that it exists largely in the real world (absent the fantastical and surreal imagery that has defined so much of the studio's portfolio), albeit one that's still tinged with a dreamlike sense of perspective and memory.

It's the early 1960s in Japan, for which the aftermath of World War II is a slowly fading memory, but a palpable one nonetheless. Progress marches on, and in the case of the high school at which much of this action takes place, that idea of progress takes on special meaning. At the center of the campus stands an old fossil of a building, the Latin Quarter, a ramshackle clubhouse that many students nonetheless consider a home away from home, a place where their extracurricular passions - be it the student newspaper, the philosophy club, the archaeology club or otherwise - take center stage. (There's an extra pang of familiarity for those of us who knew just such a place at one time in our lives, in high school, college or otherwise.)

The school board is considering getting rid of the clubhouse altogether and replacing it with a new and improved building, an all-too-eager attempt to toss away vestiges of the past. Or, in the students' minds, to toss away the past altogether. There's a casual, unspoken irony in the fact that it's the youth who are desperate to preserve their traditions, while the adults in authority seem all too willing to move forward without looking back.

It's in the midst of the clubhouse turmoil that Umi (voiced in the English version by Sarah Bolger) develops a kinship with Shun (Anton Yelchin), the head of the school paper and ardent proponent of keeping the Latin Quarter alive.

Meanwhile, Umi is dealing with her own struggle to hold on to her past. Her father's ship sank years ago during the Korean War, but every morning, just as she has since childhood, she raises signal flags from her hilltop home, in the event her dad ever needs to find his way home. With her mom away on business in the U.S., leaving her in the care of her grandmother along with her two siblings and a couple of boarding students, Umi finds her attention increasingly drawn toward the Latin Quarter - or, more specifically, toward Shun.

At times Poppy Hill reminded me of the ethereal charm of a Whit Stillman film, as Miyazaki (Goro, that is) creates a nice balance between the youthful energy of the campus and the prickly emotional territory the story confronts. The final result feels slight by comparison to other Ghibli efforts, but also possesses an effortless likability.

One of the key selling points, needless to say, is the (primarily hand-drawn) animation, and in that area - even when certain other elements fall short - Poppy Hill is a standout. Ghibli films always have such an indelible sense of place; the style of animation is sometimes mocked for certain tendencies (the crude lack of detail to the way characters' mouths move, for example), but it's in the flourishes and details of the film's locations that the animators really breathe life into each story.

The key setting in this case is the clubhouse, which becomes a memorable character in and of itself. And that's just as well, since that's exactly what it is to the students - a living extension of themselves, and their past.

When Umi first visits the Latin Quarter, it's daunting and monstrous; we see her look up, up, up from the ground floor toward all the levels hovering above her (in a shot that, in its composition and subjective point of view, felt to me like a reverse version of the famous stairwell shot from Vertigo) (only without the zoom-dolly effect). That shot gives us a glimpse of the ornate detailing of the clubhouse, and as she ascends the stairs, those details really get to show off. The disordered, lopsided stacks of books, boxes and newspapers; the dust and cobwebs dripping and drooping off lightbulbs that haven't been replaced in years; the ropes and wires that seem to be holding the decrepit old place together; the dulled, aged blues and greens covering the walls, contrasted brilliantly by the sunlight shining through the small, neon, stained-glass windows bordering the front doorway.

Even if we didn't have the clear-cut ideas of the script to guide our way through, just spending a few minutes in the clubhouse would tell us everything we need to know. It's a place that feels lived-in - simultaneously occupied and abandoned, beautiful and grotesque. The narrative elements of From Up on Poppy Hill are nice enough, but it's that personal and tangibly physical quality that ultimately sticks in our memory. The film as a whole, quite by design, plays out like a fondly remembered series of moments, in a not-so-long-ago time and place.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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