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From Up on Poppy Hill

Posted by martinteller on November 5, 2013

Umi is a high school student.  Her father died as a sailor in the Korean War, but she dutifully hoists the naval signal flags for him every morning, at the boardinghouse run by her mother, who is currently away in America.  Shun is a charismatic pupil at Umi’s school, and he’s fighting to save the “Latin Quarter”, an elegant but ramshackle old structure the students use as a clubhouse.  The Latin Quarter is scheduled to be torn down in anticipation of the 1964 Olympics.  Despite a full slate of chores at the boardinghouse, Umi joins the fight… and develops a fondness for Shun.

Studio Ghibli has a towering reputation, among anime fans and non-fans alike.  In the period from 1988 to 2002, they produced a number of great, original animated features, including Grave of the Fireflies, My Neighbor Totoro, Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away.  But what has Ghibli done for us lately?  In the past decade, it’s been a string of pleasant but unremarkable films.  Goro Miyazaki (son of the legendary Hayao) takes the helm once again after his disappointing Earthsea adaptation… and once again comes up short with another nice but unfulfilling story.

I can’t stress enough that the movie is nice.  The characters are all likable and the film has a lovely attention to cultural detail.  These little Japanese villages always seem so appealing.  However, as a return to the realism of films like Only Yesterday and Whisper of the Heart, Poppy Hill doesn’t measure up in emotional impact.  I like Umi and Shun as decent people, but did not find them very compelling as characters.  It’s rare for me to say a movie doesn’t take itself seriously enough, but this one is so lightweight (as typified by its breezy music) that it simply drifted past me, rarely taking hold.  Even when a sudden plot twist raises something resembling an intriguing conflict, Shun audibly shrugs it off as something from a cheap melodrama.  Normally I’d agree, but in this case I was happy for something more interesting than Umi preparing another meal or a hacky “cleaning up” montage.

All matters are wrapped up neatly and predictably, and ultimately your enjoyment of the film will depend on your investment in Umi and Shun.  I found little to latch onto, and although I did generally enjoy the agreeable atmosphere, I was never moved to any significant degree.  Rating: Fair (64)

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