I have a confession to make. I have never seen a film by Japan’s master animator Hiyao Miyazaki, one of Japan's greatest animation directors, and founder of the legendary Studio Ghibli. His films have earned him international renown from critics as well as public recognition within Japan. Among the titles you may have heard are Kiki's Delivery Service, My Neighbor Totoro and Princess Mononoke. Miyazaki is often referred to as the “Japanese Walt Disney.”
I did, however, have a chance to see the latest film by his son, Goro Miyazaki, for which the father wrote the screenplay. It’s call From Up on Poppy Hill, and is set in and around Tokyo in the summer of 1963, the year before that city hosted the Summer Olympics. The Japanese people saw that event as an opportunity to showcase their country to the world and put the war behind them.
But the high school teenagers in Yokohama, right across the bay, have a more pressing, and personal problem to deal with. Their high school has a ramshackle clubhouse that houses all sorts of academic pursuits and gatherings. The school’s administration wants it demolished as a run down eyesore.
Young Umi lives with her grandmother, siblings, and others at her grandmother’s boarding house, a bright yellow structure that sits atop Poppy Hill, providing a breathtaking vista of all that’s around it. Umi works a lot. She pretty much runs the boarding house, does the shopping, cooking, and laundry, all while attending high school. One day she encounters the daring and charming Shun, to whom she is immediately attracted. How she might have time for a relationship in the midst of all her other responsibilities is anybody’s guess, but as is usual with teenagers, romance, then problems, ensue.
What makes this animated feature unusual is that there are no talking animals, no space aliens, and no meatballs falling from the sky. It’s a very straightforward, heart-tugging relationship film between two young people. The Japanese style of animation is very different from the computer generated American films. Many of the scenes are just gorgeous, and would earn a place of honor on the wall of any art collector.
The original score is also charming, and matches the story well. If you recall a Japanese language pop music hit from the early sixties, titled in this country as “Sukiyaki,” by Ryuchi Sakamoto, it’s heard to good effect here. The love story, as well as the efforts of the teens to save their beloved clubhouse, will grab you unlike other animated films, and you may forget that you’re watching drawings, not actors. Go see From the Top of Poppy Hill while it’s still here.
Also, this review is based on my seeing the English-language version, which used some terrific talent for the voices. You’ll hear the likes of Sarah Bolger, Anton Yelchin, Christina Hendricks, Chris Noth, Jamie Lee Curtis, Bruce Dern and Ron Howard.
The PG-rated From the Top of Poppy Hill is now showing exclusively at the Mariemont Theatre.