From Up on Poppy Hill: Toronto Review

Vastly improving on his debut film, Goro Miyazaki has made a sweetly old-fashioned anime with fine painterly compositions.

Japanese animator Goro Miyazaki (son of Hayao) makes his second animated feature with an assist from his legendary dad.

Sometimes the apple doesfall far from the tree as seems to be the case for Goro Miyazaki, son of legendary anime master Hayao Miyazaki. He’s made two animation features now and neither has come close to the sheer magic of Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle or Princess Mononoke. Which is not to say he isn’t getting better. His 2006 Tales from Earthsea was a real wet noodle while From Up on Poppy Hill, to which papa gives an assist by co-writing the screenplay, is a sweet and sentimental ode to 1960s Japan. It’s a decent anime for the home market but, boy, is it old-fashioned.

As such, festival play such as it is receiving here in Toronto, is about all that can be expected. Then again, Earthsea somehow found its way to North American shores, possibly on the strength of the Miyazaki name so limited releases in foreign markets are not out of the question.

Poppy Hill is especially strong in its art direction as it astutely evokes Japan in the lead up to the post-war coming-out party of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. The seacoast city of Yokohama with its older Meiji-erabuildings, the pleasing color palette and the hustle and bustle of ships moving far out in the harbor all portray an era of transition. The character drawings are not terribly expressive, however. Nor does the story justify a feature movie.

To make ready for the Olympics, revitalization fanatics want to transform everything and that includes the demolition of an old high-school clubhouse that students dearly love. So a protest movement is organized, a rather genteel one that merely amounts to cleaning the place up — no student has thought of this in years apparently — and pleading with the school board head to take another look at their treasured hangout.

Another plotline, and a marginally more interesting one, involves a budding romance between two of the protest’s leaders — Umi (Masami Nagasawa), a fatherless girl who virtually runs the family boarding house business due to her mother’s prolonged absences, and Shun (Jun’ichi Okada), a true orphan. Apparently with families broken up or left without parents altogether due to the World War and than the Korean conflict, it was not unusual for people to adopt babies who lost their dads. Such was the case with Shun. So the romance gets threatened when he learns he mightbe Umi’s sister.

This is all a mild melodrama at best. The film doesn't really seem to take either storyline too seriously. Rather they seem to exist so the movie can wallow in nostalgia for a period where such preservations issues dominated public thought, rather than tsunamis and near nuclear disaster.

It’s a pleasant movie with excellent visuals but instantly forgettable.

Venue: Toronto International Film Festival
Production companies: Studio Ghibil
Cast: Masami Nagasawa, Jun’ichi Okada, Teruyki Kagawa
Director: Goro Miyazaki
Screenwriters: Hayao Miyazaki, Kelko Niwa
Producer: Toshio Suzuki
Executive producer: Koji Hoshino
Director of photography: Atsushi Okul
Music: Satoshi Takebe
Sales: Wild Bunch
No rating, 91 minutes