Anime at its Most Modest

Goro Miyazaki doesn’t have it easy. As the son of Hayao Miyazaki, and heir apparent to Studio Ghibli, which is responsible for some of the best animated features of the last 25 years, from “My Neighbor Totoro” to “Ponyo,” Mr. Miyazaki has some pretty big shoes to fill. So it’s not surprising that his second film,”From Up on Poppy Hill,” keeps things modest.

Goro directs a script written by his father and adapted from a girls’ manga series from 1980, and the result is sort of plain. Flashes of potential can be seen here and there, but there’s very little magic.

A scene from the animated film, "From Up on Poppy Hill." Chizuru Takahashi photos
A scene from the animated film, “From Up on Poppy Hill.”
Chizuru Takahashi photos
2092432The question is why this is a seaside romance between two high schoolers, and not anything fantastic like a majority of Studio Ghibli productions. There do exist such films in the Ghibli filmography — “Whisper of the Heart” and “Only Yesterday” — but they are rare. (The latter film has never received U.S. distribution.)

The answer could be in its time and setting. In 1963 Japan was shaking off post-war reconstruction and getting ready for a major wave of modernization, heralded by the coming of the Olympics to Tokyo in 1964. The air in “Poppy Hill” is rife with nostalgia, and the port setting of Yokohama looks more like a tiny bay than a major industrial hub. One of the main plots — the saving of an old, multi-story clubhouse on school grounds — ties into themes of many Ghibli films: the importance of the past, a critical eye towards needless modernization, and a group of like-minded individuals bucking the system. And like other Miyazaki films, it also has a strong, young female character, Umi, who looks after her sister and a house of boarders, cooking, cleaning and being domestic while her mother is away in America. Her father, on the other hand, is never coming back, having died in a navy accident when she was little. She raises maritime signal flags from her house on Poppy Hill in the hopes that somehow her father is still out there, somewhere.

But she also falls in love with Shun, a high school senior, publisher of the school newspaper, and the reason Umi gets involved in the clubhouse, called “The Latin Quarter.” An old photo raises questions and complicates their relationship, and even Shun at one point comments, “This is like a bad melodrama.” Well, “Poppy Hill” isn’t bad, but it most definitely is melodrama.

And we don’t really do melodrama the way the Japanese do it, which limits the audience for this film. For kids, the drama might seem boring, and for adults, the rather dull character design (surprising for a Miyazaki film), sappy music, and maudlin tone may equally bore.

Fans of Ghibli’s exquisite animation do get rewarded, but only occasionally. A trip into the town center at dusk is a beautiful mix of purple sky and warm orange lighting, capturing a time and a place. Similarly the clubhouse, which is rendered impossibly big, hearkens back to the bathhouse of “Spirited Away,” but not enough time is spent within its walls.

With voice actors Sarah Bolger and Anton Yelchin as the two leads, and Gillian Anderson, Beau Bridges, Christina Hendricks, Bruce Dern and Jamie Lee Curtis as co-stars, the film does its best to make it American-friendly. But it’s only recommended for those who continually bring handkerchiefs along with their popcorn.

‘From Up on Poppy Hill’
* *
Starring: Sarah Bolger and Anton Yelchin
Length: 91 minutes
Rating: PG for mild thematic elements and some smoking
Playing at: Fiesta 5

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