From Up On Poppy Hill

by Jake Mulligan

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Friday March 15, 2013

Studio Ghibli
Studio Ghibli  (Source:Scene from "From Up on Poppy Hill")

Studio Ghibli is often marked as the Japanese Pixar, or vice versa, but it's a loose connection at best. With the exception of Brad Bird's physically comedic masterpieces ("The Incredibles," and "Ratatouille"), you often can't tell who's directing a Pixar film. Their "brain trust" of creatives collaborate on every effort; and for better or worse, you'd be hard pressed to explain the difference between a Mark Andrews film and a John Lasseter film, or between an Andrew Stanton film and a Lee Unkrinch film. With Ghibli, not so much.

They have opposite problems. All but five of their thus-far-sixteen have been directed by either the legendary Hayao Miyazaki (of "Spirited Away" and "Totoro" fame,) or by the critically lauded Isao Takahata (whose "Grave of the Fireflies" remains, to many, as the very peak of animation itself.) So "From Up on Poppy Hill," their latest release, carries with it an easy-to-miss, yet very notable conceit - it's the first time anyone other than Takahata or Hayao has directed a second film for the studio.

Hayao's son Goro, fresh off the overblown and disappointing "Tales From Earthsea," delivers his sophomore effort here. And while it may not suggest the second coming of the man who brought us "Kiki's Delivery Service," it does suggest a bright future ahead for Ghibli, with or without its elder statesmen.

While it may not suggest the 2nd coming of the man who brought us "Kiki's Delivery Service," it does suggest a bright future ahead for Ghibli, with or without its elder statesmen.

"Poppy Hill" is indicative of their usual style, if not their usual scope. Set in post-war Yokohama, the film is, for lack of a better descriptor, incredibly Japanese. Its hook is a romantic melodrama between Umi and Shun (Sarah Bolger and Anton Yelchin in the English dub being released to theaters now) - two youngsters, constantly torn between their feelings for each other and their complicated, slowly revealed family history - yet the focus, as it so often is, is laid on the clash between Japan's desire for westernization and its respect for its thousands-year-old culture.

So Goro's lush animations follow the characters as they try desperately to save their classically designed dormitory from a pre-Olympics demolition, and as they sheepishly cover up their emotions in the classroom (and celebrate almost ritualistically when they're revealed,) and as they do their best to respect the traditions of honor and loyalty that have been passed down to them. And so what likely seems a picture for young adults in Japan appears very, very grown up here in the USA (after all, what do we have to compare it to - "Cars 2?")

Just don't come along expecting "Mononoke Part II." "Poppy Hill" runs a scant 80 minutes, and its closest companion in the Ghibli canon is the made-for-television melodrama "Ocean Waves," which should tell you something about its ambition and scope (it even, verbatim, borrows a gag from that movie where the characters self-reference their situation as 'something out of a bad soap opera'.)

Goro Miyazaki is far from ready to step into his father's shoes. But in going back to the basics, he has me thinking that, someday, he may be able to do that. Maybe.