Just a few days ago, multi-award winner and Japanese anime maestro Hayao Miyazaki had announced his retirement (I know he was semi-retired as a director for some years now), and while most anime fans were saddened, I may have been one of the few who thought that Mr. Miyazaki deserved his rest and I was a little glad that he had finally truly decided to retire. Hayao Miyazaki had entertained us with such compelling stories in anime (Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, My Neighbor Totoro to name a few) that I know that he will be missed. But if “The Secret World of Arrietty” was any indication, Studio Gibli is sure to be in good hands since Miyazaki had taught his followers well.
So there is a strong possibility that “From Up On Poppy Hill” would be one of the last two of Hayao Miyazaki’s films as writer (he had just finished “The Wind Rises“). Based on the serialized manga with the same name by Tetsuro Sayama and Chizuru Takahashi, Hayao co-wrote the screenplay while his son Goro Miyazaki is at the director’s chair. I wasn’t too impressed with Goro’s first film “Tales from Earth Sea”; sure, I did not hate it, but it was just a far cry from what was expected of Studio Gibli. Well, Goro seeks to redeem himself in the eyes of his father’s fans, and with Hayao as a co-writer, Goro may indeed be on the way in making a name for himself.
The film is set after the last Korean war in 1963. Japan is slowly picking it self up after the last world war and is preparing to host the Olympics. This backdrop of hope and change serves to tell the story of a young student named Umi Matsuzawa (Masami Nagasawa). Umi is a diligent, hard-working student who meets a young man named Shun Kazama (Junichi Okada) in the process of trying to restore an old building called Quartier Latin just so it could avoid demolition. Strong feelings begin to blossom between the two, but a buried secret from their past emerges to cast its shadow. Something from the past may tear apart their future. Can fate show them the truth or are they doomed to be torn apart?
Having been created by the folks at Studio Gibli, it is to be expected that the company’s practice of shirking fancy CGI graphics in favor of the more traditional animation would still hold true. Nothing can ever replace the magic of compelling storytelling, that such stories would never need fancy CGI work to enthrall its audience. “From Up on Poppy Hill” continues this tradition, as the screenplay becomes the film’s main draw. The film carries strong themes about hope, change, the memories of the past and the hope for a future. The story is all about how the people can only embrace its destination by remembering its past; as one needs to learn from its mistakes. There is a strong message in its screenplay, as the dilapidated building becomes renovated, it serves as a remainder of the past’s greatness and its ‘cleansing’ becomes a metaphor as to what can be done with the right people and the right decisions for change.
Hayao Miyazaki and Keiko Niwa may have written the script to evolve in such a way as to mirror progress and design, but this message only serves to give that much power to the story of Umi and Shun. Their story may be set behind the backdrop of progress, but the film actually brings forth a very human message about embracing the shadows of the past, and that when one becomes lost, one needs to retrace his steps to go forward. Shun’s adoptive father (Nao Omuri) and Umi’s mother (Jun Fubuki) serves us a window to the past and a way to uncover the real truth. There is a very human truth to the messages told in the film, and this creates characters that seem to capture a life all their own. The story was developed and evolved with meticulous care; I mean, with Hayao Miyazaki having creative control, one could expect no less.
The Japanese voice cast was superb (I prefer to watch my anime always in the original language with the subtitles) and the scenes do come alive despite the lack of any fancy CGI animation. Masami Nagasawa definitely stole the show as her voice acting was simple, and yet it ‘merged’ well with the film’s visual style. I do have to mention that the sound effects and design were just as clever. It created a very realistic animated world; from the footsteps, the clang of each object (glass and cook ware) and the low bird chirping to the sound of the wind brushing against the bushes this was a world that became very much alive.
The character designs of Umi did remind me of “Kiki’s Delivery Service” but really, this wasn’t a negative observation but rather the use of familiarity gives the film a solid form of uniformity when it comes to films made by this studio. While the character designs were simple, the faces and the rendering of emotion was impeccable. The details in the backgrounds and layout design were very impressive. They were paintings which were animated, that the textures and the grand details (notice the books bundled up and tied) must have taken thousands of hours to render. Studio Gibli may stick to the traditional way of animation, but really, their style is on par with the best work Pixar or Dreamworks have come to offer with their fancy CGI designs.
“From Up on Poppy Hill” is an anime film set in the real town of Yokohama, and one could definitely feel the soul and spirit of this place during this period. The film may have a simple story, but its execution made it such a marvelous cinematic experience. The trick in creating a compelling animated film is the fantastic world being woven before one’s eyes, and on this Studio Gibli may be without equal. Why? Because it creates a story, defines its characters and is not afraid to take risks. Hayao Miyazaki may have retired, but the studio should be in good hands. Goro has redeemed himself after his somewhat misfire “Tales from Earth Sea”. Highly Recommended. [4 Out of 5 Stars]
Director Goro Miyazaki redeems himself after his somewhat misfire "Tales From Earth Sea". Yeah, well...his Pop wrote this film and planned it. But still, the son did a good job. See Full Review Here. Illustration by Hayao Miyazaki for promo poster.