Saturday, February 15, 2014

Penny Thoughts ‘14—From Up On Poppy Hill (2012) ***½

PG, 91 min.
Director: Goro Miyazaki
Writers: Hayao Miyazaki, Keiko Niwa, Tetsurô Sayama, (original story and comic), Chizuru Takahashi (comic)
English voices: Sarah Bolger, Anton Yelchin, Charlie Saxton, Gillian Anderson, Jamie Lee Curtis, Beau Bridges, Chris Noth, Aubrey Plaza, Emily Osment, Ron Howard, Christina Hendricks, Isabelle Fuhrman, Bruce Dern, Emily Bridges, Jeff Dunham

I didn’t know much about last year’s Studio Ghibli film “From Up on Poppy Hill”, when I decided to screen it for my Family Movie Night this week. I didn’t even know that it would tie in with my Olympic themed movies over the two weeks of the Sochi Olympics, but it does. I did know that Goro Miyazaki, son of the Japanese animation master Hayao Miyazaki, directs it. I did know that it is co-written by Hayao. I knew it didn’t involve the spirit magic that often occupies much of Miyazaki’s work. I knew it involved a human drama of sorts. I didn’t know if my kids would like it.

“From Up On Poppy Hill” proves that if a movie is made well, it will interest kids no matter what the subject matter. It involves a girl, Umi, who lives with her grandmother in a boarding house for young women finishing their studies. Her mother is away and her father disappeared as a sailor on a supply ship during the Korean War. Umi raises two flags for her father each morning in hopes that her father might return and see them. What she doesn’t know is that a boy whose father is a tugboat captain in the busy harbor outside Tokyo answers her flags everyday.

It is 1963, and Tokyo is deep in preparations for the 1964 Summer Olympic Games. An historical old building on Umi’s campus is in threat of being torn down to make way for more modern facilities. A boy, who catches Umi’s eye is a leader in the student campaign to save the building. As Umi becomes involved in the cause to save it, she and the boy begin to develop feelings for each other. What will happen when she discovers that this is the same boy who answers her maritime flag messages every morning? And how are the two much more deeply connected to each other? The answer to that final question is incredibly complicated, and yet my children of 12 and 8 were as fascinated by those answers as they were in anything from the Star Wars universe.

What always amazes me about the films of Studio Ghibli is how their movies can always deal with such complex and mature subjects in an animated format that never fails to appeal to all ages. This story seems as if it could be told in a live action format just as easily as an animated one, but I don’t think it would be nearly as effective despite its deep foundation in the reality of our world, even down to the history involved. Were it not animated, I think its details would be taken for granted. The busy markets wouldn’t seem quite so exotic or enticing. The old building at the center of the film’s action wouldn’t seem quite so charming or necessary. The glances given back and forth by Umi and the boy, Shun, wouldn’t hold quite so much meaning behind them. And their secret connection might seem darker than it needs to. The animated format keeps this story accessible to all, and that’s what it needs to be to make it as special as it is.

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