Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Review: From Up On Poppy Hill

Tales From Earth / Sea

While I'd be the first to acknowledge a personal bias and fondness for the works of Studio Ghibli, I also fully acknowledge that they haven't had a perfect track record. While many of their works are amongst my all time favourite films, and a majority are at least very good, there are others I think are more disposable. Indeed, I'd argue that they haven't made a truly 'great' film since Spirited Away. I've laid out my feelings about the back catalogue relatively exhaustively here and here (and a review of Arrietty here). But there's only one Ghibli film I truly dislike, and that's Tales from Earthsea. It looks nice, but its vapid sub-Tolkien world of dragons and assorted nonsense was dull, with the narrative and characters duller still. It was a weak, poorly judged debut from Hayao Miyazaki's son Goro, and was almost completely devoid of the charm and energy that has defined the studio for decades. So it's with pessimism I approached Goro's second feature, From Up On Poppy Hill.

Said pessimism was, happily, unwarranted. While From Up On Poppy Hill is never going to be accused of originality or reinventing the wheel, it is utterly charming. The film tells the story of Umi, a 16 year-old girl living in 1960s Japan. Her sailor father was killed in the Korean war (Umi still raises flags in his honour every morning), and she's in charge of the family boarding house (located on the titular hill of poppies, with a wonderful view of the sea) while her mother is away on academic business. She juggles this with her school life, where she meets and falls for the charming Shun. He's a writer with the school journalism club, but unfortunately the culture club's ancient clubhouse is being threatened with demolition to prepare for the upcoming Tokyo Olympics. Against this backdrop, a mutual attraction blooms between Shun and Umi. But romance is never easy, is it?

A warning: fans of more whimsical Ghibli may find themselves in uncharted waters here. Those who have discovered the joys of Only Yesterday, Whisper of the Heart or Ocean Waves will likely warm to it quicker, though. From Up On Poppy Hill is in no particular rush to get anywhere. The scale is small, and there's a pleasantly nostalgic and considered tone throughout. Indeed, one could (incorrectly, in my opinion) argue live action would be a more suitable fit for a film of this sort. With the addition Ghibli's gorgeous hand-drawn animation, however, the relaxed pacing and understated story are much more endearing.

This is a funny, warm-hearted film from the offset. The period details sparkle, and there's the innocent, dreamy delivery we've come to expect from Ghibli. The clubhouse scenes - where the boys and girls of the school ultimately decide to renovate it on their own terms - are highlights: full of energy, humour and charming characterisation. It's also an achingly nostalgic film, and you can really feel Goro's enthusiasm and fondness for an old Japan being gradually replaced by a modern one (a late sojourn to a rapidly expanding Tokyo is a fascinating diversion). It's a reminder of simpler times, and even if things like the gender divide or political situation seem dated, the characters are interesting enough to keep us invested. Adapted from a manga by Tetsuo Sayama and Chizuru Takahashi, almost every frame of FUOPH tries it's darndest to charm the heck out of you, and there are frequently moments when it's almost impossible to resist.

The only real peculiarities worth noting are some... unusual twists in the teenage romance that forms the spine of the story. Mostly, it's very likeable stuff, but there's a second half development that pushes it further into the realms of romantic melodrama. It still works, but there's a few scenes delivered with passion and conviction that inspired a few unintentional chuckles in the audience I saw it with. Perhaps it's that one or two slightly bizarre exchanges are presented entirely straight-faced, or perhaps some of the sequences' subtleties have been lost in translation. However, the payoffs are ultimately worth it, and for every melodramatic turn there's at least two or three scenes that are comparatively understated and subtle.

I can only restress that those expecting epic levels of originality or Ghibli in magical flight-of-fancy mode may emerge disappointed. But I don't think many will be able to resist the plethora of charms on offer in Goro Miyazaki's vastly improved second film. The animation is gorgeous, the setting hypnotic and the overall atmosphere pleasingly uplifting. A misstep or two aside, From Up On Poppy Hill caught me with my guard down, and it proceeded to charm my (entirely metaphorical) socks off. Goro, to my pleasant surprise, has emerged from the shadow of his father and created a great film of his own.

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