Film Review: ‘Up on Poppy Hill’

A scene in "From Up on Poppy Hill," the latest film written by retired animator Hayao Miyazaki Credit: 2011 Chizuru Takahashi - Tetsuro Sayama - GNDHDDT
A scene in “From Up on Poppy Hill,” the latest film written by retired animator Hayao Miyazaki
Credit: 2011 Chizuru Takahashi – Tetsuro Sayama – GNDHDDT

‘From Up on Poppy Hill’
Director: Goro Miyazaki
Stars the voices of: Sarah Bolger, Anton Yelchin
Rating: PG
3 (out of 5) Globes

Animation legend Hayao Miyazaki (“Spirited Away,” etc.), who’s officially retired, has long used fantastical elements to ruminate on the same few homespun themes: a yearning for the simplicity of the past as it’s crushed by the new; technology’s encroachment over nature; the beauty of hand-drawn cel animation over the coldness of its computer generated counterpart. These are all present in the latest from his home base, the storied Studio Ghibli, which, like last year’s “The Secret World of Arrietty,” features his name on the screenplay credit and boasts a look and feel that are unmistakably his.

The only difference: no fantastical elements. Historically Miyazaki has couched his pet concerns in bizarre creatures and transitory narratives. “From Up on Poppy Hill,” based on the serialized comic by Chizuru Takahashi and Tetsuro Sayama, is Miyazaki stripped of actual — if not figurative — magic. Does a Miyazaki (or an Almost Miyazaki) still work without the cat buses or the mutating deer gods? Of course it does, because his films, no matter how outlandish, always have a deep foundation in matters right here on earth.

A magic-free Miyazaki does, however, lack some necessary vitality. Set in relentlessly homey seaside Yokohama on the cusp of the 1964 Tokyo Summer Olympics, it’s the kind of small town microcosm where the adults are too laidback to motor a plot, leaving adolescents to instead hatch mini-dramas. 16 year old Umi is in love with Shun, a fiery poet who’s opposed to the threatened demolition of the school’s dilapidated club house. The discovery that the two may be related provides an unusual twist — Ami’s naval father, who perished at sea, may also be Shun’s — but “Poppy Hill” is not a film about narrative but about  small town feel.

The low stakes are part of the charm of a film where the older supporting characters idly reflect on decaying bodies, and where the subplot with the widest impact involves renovating a building. (And all without putting on a show to raise funds.) Even if Miyazaki’s son Goro directed, it has the feel of an august work by an artist with nothing left to prove, who merely wants to revel in the leisurely pace of his past. It’s also one of those films — like certain late Ozus or Robert Altman’s “Prairie Home Companion” — with pockets of grandparently depth that only become apparent on repeat viewings, when narrative is no longer one’s concern.


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