Review: From Up on Poppy Hill / Cert: U / Director: Goro Miyazaki / Screenplay: Various / Starring: Sarah Bolger, Anton Yelchin, Chris Noth / Release Date: Out Now
Goro Miyazaki may have the least enviable job in cinema. His father, Hayao, is effectively the grand wizard of all things animated and glorious and following his act must be like competing with the sun in a ‘be hot’ competition. Tale of Earthsea was a shaky debut, but with the Old Master laying down his sword next year, it’s up to his son to pick up the family mantle. From Up on Poppy Hill marks a confident stride in the right direction.
There’s something uniquely heartwarming about a Ghibli film. Outside of their obvious and abundant outward beauty – all lush, bright colours and vivid aesthetics – there’s an infectious sense of life. Poppy Hill excels on a technical level, not just in a calculating pragmatic sense, but in the legitimately heartwarming, ‘I’m smiling like a goofball’ way too.
The scene tracking lead protagonist Umi (Bolger) and her friend as they first explore their school clubhouse is beguiling in its clarity of vision; with snapshots of barmy, idiosyncratic characters and a backdrop of chaotic academia all set to a jaunty jazzy tune, it crafts an utterly intriguing cinematic experience.
This is a more intimate and grounded tale than Ghibli’s norm, leaving the fantasy worlds and beasties behind. The focus here is on teenage love and relationships in 1960s post-war Japan, centred on Umi and mystery sailor’s boy Shun (Yelchin) as they come together in saving their school’s historical clubhouse from demolition. But that isn’t to say it lacks that sense of heartfelt whimsy that so characterizes the beloved studio.
The universe of adolescence is a hard thing to get right in cinema, often laughably mishandled, but Poppy Hill isn’t afraid to pay its respects with characters who at once feel real and change believably, guided by a skilled script littered with vivid voices. A few particular images and scenes are rather ham-fisted – those dream sequences, oh dear – but they’re a fleeting irritation at worst.
Poppy Hill’s is a soft touch, slow burning and it never really starts to boil. It’s an exercise in restraint and nuance, and while it may miss the mark on occasion – there’s a deus ex machina at play here – it develops like one of the jazzy piano tracks that so enlivens its score; ostensibly beautiful and full of life, with a depth of character for those willing to open their ears (or eyes) and find it.
There may be no real stakes at play – it’s forever destined for Ye Olde Land of Happily Ever After - but that’s beside the point. Poppy Hill commands its niche with all the authority and charm you could hope for from a Ghibli production. Goro’s well on his way.