Judge Clark Douglas raises his official DVD Verdict flag every morning at dawn.
From the legendary Studio Ghibli.
"I know we can't do anything about it…but I love you."
Facts of the Case
Yokohama, 1963. Japan is preparing to host the 1964 Olympic Games in Tokyo, and efforts are underway to make the surrounding cities look as impressive as possible for the rest of the world. Many run-down older buildings are being demolished and replaced with more modern facilities. Unfortunately, this means that a local school clubhouse (which serves as home to a wide variety of clubs—the chemistry club, the philosophy club, the archeology club, etc.) is going to be destroyed. Determined to stop this from happening, a teenage girl named Umi (Sarah Bolger, The Spiderwick Chronicles) and a teenage boy named Shun (Anton Yelchin, Star Trek) work together to clean up the building and prove its worth to those intent on tearing it down. Along the way, they begin to develop strong feelings for each other. Alas, it isn't long before they both discover a secret that threatens to put a permanent end to their budding romance.
To put it kindly, Goro Miyazaki's career as a director didn't exactly get off to a great start. When he was tapped to helm Studio Ghibli's adaptation of Ursula K. Le Guin's Tales from Earthsea, his legendary father Hayao Miyazaki publicly stated his disapproval, as he felt his son lacked the experience required to direct a feature. The final product took a lot of unfortunate liberties with the source material and is widely regarded as the weakest of Studio Ghibli's outings, earning tepid reviews from critics and deep disappointment from Le Guin herself. Surely it didn't help matters that Goro shared his father's last name—after all, the elder Miyazaki is responsible for some of the greatest animated films of all time. That's a tough standard to live up to.
Thankfully, Goro didn't give up. His sophomore feature From Up on Poppy Hill (based on a script co-written by the elder Miyazaki) is a film very much worthy of the Studio Ghibli brand; a gentle, wistful period piece that sits snugly between low-key Ghibli efforts like Whispers of the Heart and The Secret World of Arrietty. Unlike both of those movies, there isn't a hint of fantasy in this film—no talking cats or witches or flying castles. As such, a handful of critics wondered why this wasn't a live-action feature—after all, it's not a story that requires many fancy special effects or enormous sets. Sure, but what does that matter? The fluid gracefulness of the studio's signature hand-drawn animation fills this tale with such breezy life.
The story is built on two fairly contrived scenarios. The first is yet another variation on the "let's put on a show!" plot, in which the members of the clubhouse must work together to restore the beauty of their building in the hopes of dissuading a powerful businessman (Beau Bridges, The Descendants) from tearing it down. The second I won't spoil, but suffice it to say that the plot device that comes between Umi and Shun is the stuff of a thousand angst-filled young adult novels ("It's like a cheap melodrama," Shun admits). Somehow, none of that matters, because the rest of the film is so rich and convincing in its handling of the little details that we're more than willing to go along with the outlandish machinations of the larger plot. Miyazaki makes us care deeply about these two young people and the world they inhabit; I'll admit to getting a bit misty-eyed during some of the film's most poignant moments.
Underneath the tale of young love is an examination of a particularly interesting moment in post-war Japan, as debate was raging across the country about the importance of preserving the nation's history vs. the importance of moving into the future. The movie never lets this debate completely overtake the proceedings, but Miyazaki does a rather masterful job of demonstrating the manner in which it occurs in the peripheral vision of his main characters. They only become truly concerned with such things when it affects them on a personal level—understandably, these teenagers are less concerned with preserving Japan's history than with doing whatever they need to do to prevent their clubhouse from being torn down.
Speaking of which, the clubhouse scenes offer a delightful comic energy that remind of us just how wonderfully playful Ghibli's films can be. There's a lot of nerd-centric humor here, such a scene in which members of the chemistry club mock a member of the philosophy club: "Hey, why don't you try arguing about something that actually exists!" The clubhouse is home to a host of colorful supporting characters, many of whom only have a couple of lines but all of whom seem quite distinct thanks to Miyazaki's expressive animation. I nearly died with laughter during one sequence in which a handful of these characters cry tears of joy as waterfalls of snot run down their faces.
From Up on Poppy Hill (Blu-ray) has received a lovely transfer from the good folks at Cinedigm. I was a little surprised that Disney didn't handle either the American theatrical distribution or home video release of this particular Studio Ghibli effort, but I could only begin to guess at the reasons for this. Anyway, the image is bright and gorgeous, as the film's lush colors have a lot of pop and depth. Detail is strong throughout, too. The DTS HD 5.0 Master Audio mix is nothing short of incredible, capturing the impressively nuanced sound design the filmmakers have crafted and highlighting the alternately infectious and heartbreaking score by Satoshi Takebe. Dialogue is crisp and clean throughout, too. It's worth noting that you are given the option of watching both the impressive English-language dub (in addition to the aforementioned actors, you'll hear the voices of Jamie Lee Curtis, Bruce Dern, Aubrey Plaza, Gillian Anderson, Ron Howard, Christina Hendricks, Chris Noth and others) or the original Japanese track.
Supplements include a handful of somewhat rough-looking but reasonably engaging featurettes ("Director Goro Miyazaki on Yokohama," "English Voice Cast Featurette," "Hayao Miyazaki's Speech After the Staff Screening" and "Yokohama: Stories of Past and Present"), a 40-minute press conference (which takes place in the wake of the earthquake & tsunami in Japan) announcing the film's theme song, a music video, a feature-length storyboard presentation and a handful of trailers. You also get a DVD copy of the film. While the production of the pieces included could have been more polished, this is generally a more comprehensive package than what Disney generally provides for Ghibli films.
In more ways than one, From Up on Poppy Hill is an entirely lovely film. Moving, thought-provoking and charming, it's a huge step forward for Goro Miyazaki after the misguided Tales from Earthsea. Recommended.
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