Tuesday, April 9, 2013

From Up on Poppy Hill: Young love and simpler times

From Up on Poppy Hill (2011) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rating: PG, for dramatic intensity
By Derrick Bang

From its very first frame, From Up on Poppy Hill is breathtaking.

You’ll literally gasp at the hand-drawn watercolor lushness of the opening tableau, as the young heroine’s neighborhood is unveiled, her home set high on a hill that overlooks Japan’s Yokohama Port. Computer animation, for all its delights, never looks like this; one must go all the way back to the Walt Disney Studio’s early days, and Snow White or Bambi.

When Umi forgets some ingredients for the evening meal, her new friend Shun offers
to speed her down the hill, in order to reach the market as quickly as possible. The
resulting trip is exciting for its breakneck danger, and also for Umi's close proximity to
a young man she's beginning to care for quite deeply.
Or any of the recent offerings from Hayao Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli, of course, which deliver the same painstaking level of luxurious quality.

From Up on Poppy Hill — incidentally, Japan’s top-grossing 2011 film — marks the first feature collaboration between the legendary Miyazaki and his son, Gorō; Hayao wrote the screenplay with Keiko Niwa, while Gorō directed. The film is adapted from a 1980 manga series by Tetsurō Sayama (writer) and Chizuru Takahashi (artist); the story is a gentle and poignant coming-of-age saga about a teenage girl who can’t let go of a past tragedy.

Aside from the visual splendor, we’re immediately struck by the fact that this is a real-world period piece. For the most part, animated features are set in fantasy realms that involve magical creatures, talking animals or other mythological tropes. Exceptions, such as 2007’s Persepolis, tend to rely on grim political content.

But while From Up on Poppy Hill certainly has its solemn moments, they result from family secrets and unexpected revelations, rather than complex issues playing out on a broader national or global stage.

The year is 1963, a time of great excitement in Japan, as ambitious plans are made to showcase the country during the upcoming Tokyo Olympics. References to construction and renewal allude to Japan’s emergence from the still-recent horrors of World War II, but the script never calls undo attention to this sobering element.

Nor do the upcoming Olympics have any impact on Umi Matsuzaki (voiced in this American release by Sarah Bolger). The 16-year-old lives in Coquelicot Manor, a boarding house she essentially runs, while caring for her grandmother and two younger siblings, Sora (Izabelle Fuhrman) and Riku (Alex Wolff). Their mother, Ryoko, is studying abroad in the United States; their father was killed in the Korean War.

Every morning before school, Umi rises early to handle various chores and prepare an elaborate breakfast for her family and the manor’s residents. She does the same with each day’s evening meal. We immediately realize that this dutiful young woman maintains an exhausting schedule from before dawn to late at night, while diligently keeping up with her studies.

Her final ritual each morning, before walking to school, is to raise a set of signal flags on the manor flagpole that her (now deceased) grandfather built for her long ago.

The flags’ message: “I pray for safe voyages.”

At Isogo High School, the controversy du jour involves the dilapidated “Latin Quarter,” a huge, multi-story manor that houses the school’s wide-ranging clubs and the student newspaper. The latter is published by Shun Kazama (Anton Yelchin) and best friend Shirō Mizunuma (Charlie Saxton), the student body president.

The myriad clubs are staffed entirely by male students, who over the course of many graduating classes have treated the Latin Quarter like a frat house ... which is to say, the place hasn’t been cleaned for years, and has become a notorious eyesore. The Kanagawa Prefectural Board of Education therefore has decided to demolish it, in order to make way for a shiny new school building more in keeping with the upcoming Olympics’ transformational theme.

The various club members — all played broadly for laughs, particularly the spluttering leader of the philosophy club — are apoplectic, but essentially hapless. Lacking any sort of consensus, too eager to bicker with each other for the sheer sake of debate, they haven’t near enough support from the wider student body.

At which point, Shun executes a lunatic, attention-getting stunt ... which does, indeed, catch Umi’s eye.

She regards him as something of an twit at first, but that impression fades quickly. Shun is too thoughtful and intelligent, and Umi respects his efforts to save the Latin Quarter. Shun’s bicycle also comes in handy when she forgets to buy the fish for one evening’s meal at Coquelicot Manor, and the subsequent pell-mell ride to the bottom of the hill proves exhilarating.

The two grow close, and Umi shares one of her dearest possessions: a photograph of her father, in naval uniform, shortly before he was killed. A flicker of ... something ... crosses Shun’s face; she doesn’t notice this reaction, but we do. At home by himself, later that same day, Shun opens an album to look at the exact same photo.

And therein lies a mystery.

Umi subsequently is bewildered when, having organized the Isogo High School girls into a massive cleaning party to help renovate and (hopefully) save the Latin Quarter, Shun ignores her. Has she done something wrong?

This interpersonal angst plays out against sidebar developments that help wrap the narrative into a tightly plotted package. One of Coquelicot Manor’s lodgers is an impressionistic artist, and has painted a tableau that Umi recognizes as the ocean vista below; to her surprise, one of the ships in the painting seems to be “answering” her signal flags. At school, Umi has become something of a celebrity as well, because of a poem to those same flags, which has been published in the student newspaper.

By this point, you may have forgotten that this is an animated film; in all the respects that matter, it could just as easily be a live-action drama. The emotional connection — the manner in which we bond to these characters — is no different.

As is typical of Studio Ghibli productions, the various background tableaus — the Latin Quarter, Coquelicot Manor, Poppy Hill itself, the market region at the bottom of the hill — are impeccably rendered, down to kitchen utensils, book titles and individual blades of grass. The character animation, in marked contrast, is quite plain, highlighted by the large eyes and small necks that characterize the traditional manga style. Noses and mouths are conveyed with simple lines; clothing hangs neatly on the body, with few wrinkles.

A passing streetcar, on a road paralleling the waterfront, casts a perfectly mirrored reflection in the night-time water below; but no effort is made, when Umi and Shun move, to bother with how their school uniforms crease into small shadows here and there.

You’d think this would detract from the expressiveness of these characters, but you’d be wrong; Gorō Miyazaki and his legion of animators deliver a rich emotional warmth, a sensitive depth, that too often are absent from the “colder” atmosphere of CGI, no matter how realistic. Much of this derives from impeccable timing; when Umi pauses and looks out toward the ocean, we sense everything running through her mind.

I’ve no doubt, as well, that this use of artistic minimalism is a deliberate creative choice by Miyazaki père et fils, and one that reflects this story’s core theme, as expressed by Umi: the importance of clinging to simpler, gentler times — as a means of honoring the past — in the face of the technological onrush of newer, faster, bigger and better.

One of this film’s most charming sequences follows Umi’s rustic kitchen rituals: measuring the rice, lighting the fire, scooping potatoes from a larder beneath the floorboards. We cannot doubt that the resulting meal would surpass anything prepared at the glitziest modern restaurant.

On the other hand, the various Latin Quarter residents are rendered a bit too cartoonishly, particularly when drops of sweat — or (ick) saliva — fly about like the excessively splashed doggie drool in 1989’s Turner & Hooch.

That’s a minor hiccup, though, compared to the damage wrought by this film’s American distributor, led by director Gary Rydstrom and executive producers Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall. The key protagonists are voiced reasonably well, but far too many incidental performances smack of stunt casting: Beau Bridges, Ron Howard, Bruce Dern, Gillian Anderson and Jamie Lee Curtis. I’d have vastly preferred the original Japanese voice actors and subtitles, thank you very much; this film, its setting, its characters and its very atmosphere are naturally Japanese, and this demands authentic voicing.

Rydstrom & Co. also screwed around with the music score, altering the sound mix and even adding some English lyrics to the interior ballads; the result is a mess that woefully dishonors the many delicate vocals and Satoshi Takebe’s instrumental underscore.

Hayao Miyazaki’s Ponyo suffered a similar fate when released in this country, and I desperately wish that hammer-handed American distributors would cut it out. Miyazaki fans abhor the results, and I suspect they avoid theatrical releases in favor of purchasing Japanese DVDs ... and more power to them.

(Since I’m on this soapbox, Jackie Chan fans are all too familiar with this phenomenon, since many of his Asian films were chopped up mercilessly for their American release. Could anything be more arrogant, not to mention insulting to U.S. viewers?)

While From Up on Poppy Hill still is a lovely, lyrical film in its somewhat compromised U.S. form, you’ll definitely want to see it twice: on the big screen, to fully embrace its stunning visuals; and later at home, in its original Japanese edit, to better appreciate the story’s dramatic impact.

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