By Andrew Hamlin
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
“From Up On Poppy Hill” is the second anime feature from Goro Miyazaki, son of the famed anime master Hayao Miyazaki of Studio Ghilbi fame. The film proves a substantial improvement over his first feature, “Tales from Earthsea” (a film I actually liked), and a story impressive for its quietude. It contains no science fiction elements, and apart from a vividly-off kilter dream sequence, there are no fantasy elements. Rather, it takes place in 1963, amidst a Japan still digging out from and redefining itself in the aftermath of World War II. It reaffirms traditional values in a culturally conservative but emotionally winning manner.
In 1963, Tokyo and Japan prepared to welcome the world for the 1964 Olympic Games. This will show the world how Japan is recovering from the war, and naturally the government wants the country to look and feel strong, confident, and accommodating.
North of Tokyo in Yokohama, however, the film’s narrative focuses on a smaller, more intimate story. Sixteen-year-old Umi Matsuzaki (voiced by Masami Nasagawa in Japanese and Sarah Bolger in the English dub) has her hands full with helping her grandmother (voiced by Keiko Takeshita/ Gillian Anderson) run a boarding house. Umi also looks after her two younger siblings, Sora and Riku, and attends to her schoolwork.
The story, adapted from a manga by Chizuru Takahashi and Tetsurō Sayama, soon splits into twinned narratives. Umi pays a visit to the Latin Quarter, a huge and imposing but badly run-down building which holds the various clubs associated with her school. There, she meets the passionate and excitable Shun Kazama (Junichi Okada/Anton Yelchin), who edits the school newspaper.
Umi quickly realizes that she’s falling in love with Shun, but she’s shy and uncertain how to proceed. She settles for spending as much time with Shun as possible. Meanwhile, word comes from the school administration that the Latin Quarter is to be torn down. This tosses Shun, Umi, and everyone else associated with the building in a mad dash to save it from the wrecking ball.
Shun and Umi share a potentially terrible secret, but the drama lies not in the secret itself, but in how they cope with it. They learn that they cannot be lovers, but they tell each other that they will always be friends, although they may not be taking into consideration the emotional wear and tear of trying to stay close. Their resolve on an intimate level reflects the larger resolve of the student body to save the Latin Quarter — which, in turn, reflects Japan’s energetic, can-do attitude between the end of WWII and the Olympics.
The animation, which the elder Miyazaki had a hand in, emphasizes bright lights against falling twilights. A long, fast downhill bike ride into the heart of the city makes for one of the film’s visual centerpieces. Appropriately enough for a story set in a port, we see plenty of freighters, tugboats, and smaller vessels arranged artfully against blue water and churning wave crests.
“Earthsea” saw Goro Miyazaki struggling to balance the personal with the epochal. Here, he succeeds in the difficult task of planting the big picture firmly within and beside the smaller picture. Umi, Shun, the students, and even the adults struggle with the past and debate over the best possible future. The simultaneous narratives emerge winningly lyrical on every level. (END)
“From Up On Poppy Hill” is currently playing at Landmark’s Egyptian Theatre, 805 East Pine Street on Seattle’s Capitol Hill. For prices and showtimes, call 206-720-4560 or visit www.landmarktheatres.com.
Andrew Hamlin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.