Review: FROM UP ON POPPY HILL is a Nice Enough Ghibli Film (Reel Anime 2012)

From Up On Poppy Hill, from Studio Ghibli, is a high school love story that take place in the year before the 1964 Tokyo Summer Olympics. Umi, a junior year student, falls for the dashing and rambunctious Shun. They are brought together by a project to repair the old Latin Quarter, a dilapidated but impressive building. Together they face the challenge to keep the building from being demolished as part of the Olympics 'clean-up Japan' movement, as well as uncovering truths about their respective lineage along the way.

Goro, son of Hayao Miyazaki, has crafted this pleasant slice of life, with an undercurrent of drama and obvious riffs on Ghibli's true to life features, such as Only Yesterday and Ocean Waves. The location feels familiar; the broad and generic characters also serve as homage to Ghibli's past. The year is 1963 but it is hard to tell, given the European feel of sunny and green Yokohama.

The animation is swell but not overly detailed, and does not contain that masterstroke inherent in most Ghibli works, but that is OK as this is a far cry better than Goro's woeful debut Tales From Earthsea. Yet again, though, this feature like his first lacks something that is magically and undeniably Ghibli and feels at times like it is trying too hard to capture this essence instead of just being its own naturally magical self.

The storyline lacks drama or major interest; it is filled with nice people doing nice things, but this fails to draw much real engagement with the characters. When the drama does occur it is paced so oddly and interwoven with the building situation that it gets lost amidst the good happening. Goro is not a great director, and it really shows, especially compared to other works from Ghibli. All the elements are there in From Up On Poppy Hill, but the pacing and flow is off-key, much like the music, which chimes in at inappropriate times and often does not match what is happening on screen.

Things pick up when they visit the big city; here the atmosphere is thick and rich and it is easy to feel the era it is striving for. If only From Up On Poppy Hill wasn't so insular, we could appreciate this interesting and barely used time of upheaval in Japan.

The feeling is certainly there, just not as strong as it could be. Students clash with administration and perform dangerous stunts and semi-protests, at times there are inklings of their frustration, but Goro does not focus on this enough and oddly enough most of these scenes end in cheerful group chorus.

Goro also tries a few experimental animation moments, which end up feeling really jilted and out of place with the rest of the film. In particular, the still-image montage of the students cleaning the building they seek to protect and the newspaper headlines embedded in each scene frankly feels lazy. Likewise, a dream sequence Umi has that comes out of nowhere is penciled in and has no stylistic or story link to the film itself.

From Up On Poppy Hill has its moments, but if you have seen every Ghibli film, it is hard to feel too impressed by this effort, which feels like it is treading familiar ground. It is enjoyable enough, but the bar set for Ghibli is too high to call this anything but a nice film.

Madman's REEL ANIME 2012 will screen in selected cinemas from September 13 - 26. For more information, please check their official website.

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  • Agha Memnun

    "The animation is swell but not overly detailed, and does not contain that masterstroke inherent in most Ghibli works, but that is OK as this is a far cry better than Goro's woeful debut Tales From Earthsea."

    Well, actually, "Earthsea" has much fuller character animation than "Poppy Hill"; that is, the motion of the characters is more fluid and expressive in "Earthsea"--there is more motion, more gesticulation, more movement on both the y- and x-axes, more facial distortion and moving holds, more caricature, a greater sense of weight, all qualities shared by "Ponyo" and "Arrietty"--while "Poppy Hill" is, on the whole, characterized by very wooden animated performances, largely very stiff and devoid of character, unbearably slow pose-to-pose stuff, with only a few exceptions. Frankly, the limited animation and low cel count of "Poppy Hill" is a great disappointment when compared with the full animation and high cel count of previous Ghibli features, such as "Ponyo" and "Arrietty", as well as "Howl" and "Earthsea".

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