Wednesday, September 11, 2013

FI: From Up on Poppy Hill

From Up on Poppy Hill
Japan, 2011
Directed by Goro Miyazaki

For a Studio Ghibli film, From Up on Poppy Hill features few of the company's hallmarks. It is directed not by one of the studio's most famous names, but by a second-generation talent, Goro Miyazaki. There are no fantastical or supernatural elements, it has a fairly small and intimate scope, and the film's only tragic events take place off-screen, before the film begins. The story—adapted by Goro's father, the legendary Hayao Miyazaki, and Keiko Niwa from a manga by Chizuru Takahashi and Tetsurō Sayama—does center on a resourceful young girl: Umi (Masami Nagasawa), a high school student who is left in charge of the family boarding house in 1960's Yokohama while her widowed mother studies in the US. Umi gets caught up in a campaign to save the Quartier Latin, a venerable campus club building, and finds the potential for romance with a courageous fellow student, the adopted Shun (Junichi Okada). But both children have ties to Japan's recent naval past through their absent fathers, and these ties could complicate their budding relationship.

From Up on Poppy Hill does some things very well. It creates an admirable sense of place and time, feeling older than it is through a combination of period music and songs written for the film. Its art and design contribute to this, as well, and if the animation is less spectacular than in some of the studio's high points, that's all to the good; a simpler style suits a simpler story. I have no doubt that for some audiences, especially those familiar with the source material or of the generation depicted, this film is entrancing.

For me, I found this film oddly unengaging. Typically, Ghibli productions pull you in through some spark, either in their thematic concerns, or in their characterization, or something. Here, I found no such hook. While From Up on Poppy Hill is pleasant enough to look at, I never felt invested in either of its major conflicts—in part because neither the struggle to save the Quartier Latin nor the protagonists' potential romance ever generates much tension. Also, perhaps in an attempt to serve the source material's fans, the film introduces a number of characters who could be interesting, but who it proceeds to underutilize and leave undeveloped. Even the central duo have little in the way of personality beyond their good natures and tragedy-marked pasts, which made it hard to feel anything much when, say, Shun acts out or Umi has a sad dream. There is nothing wrong with lightweight films, but something has to anchor us to what we're seeing, even if just to make us feel or think. This one did neither, and more's the pity. Despite really wanting to like this film, in the end I settled for tolerating it.

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