Looking back over the movies of summer 2013, it’s been a lackluster season for Hollywood so far—and that applies particularly to one of my favorite movie categories, animation. The best of the summer was Pixar’s latest sequel, Monsters University—a fine little film, although weaker than any non-Cars Pixar film since A Bug’s Life. It was all downhill from there (with the caveat that at this writing I haven’t seen Cloudy 2).
There was, however, a more ambitious and artful animated film in theaters this summer, even though it didn’t play widely and wasn’t heavily advertised. From Up on Poppy Hill (on home video September 3) is the latest from Studio Ghibli, the Japanese animation house behind The Secret World of Arrietty and Ponyo.
Co-written by Ghibli co-founder Hayao Miyzaki and directed by his son Goro Miyazaki, From Up on Poppy Hill is a gently naturalistic departure from the high-flying fantasy for which the studio is best known. Set in the Japanese coastal city of Yokohama in 1963, the year before the Tokyo Olympics, Poppy Hill is at once a sentimental coming-of-age tale, a nostalgic period piece rich in cultural specificity, and an exploration of the relationship between the past, present, and future.
The meandering story follows a schoolgirl named Umi (voiced in the English dub by Sarah Bolger), a typically responsible young Miyazakian heroine who, in her mother’s absence, helps pull her weight at her grandmother’s boarding house by preparing meals for her siblings and boarders. Umi’s morning routine includes raising a pair of signal flags over the harbor—a ritual that, also typical for Ghibli, the film is in no rush to explain.
At school, a fraternity of academic boys’ clubs engages in activism to try to save an elegant but dilapidated old building called the “Latin Quarter,” which serves as a picturesque home base for the clubs. One of these boys, a strong-willed fellow named Shun (Anton Yelchin), pulls a publicity-seeking daredevil stunt that makes very different impressions on Umi and her younger sister.
Then the story takes a romantic turn that is all the more intriguing for the characters being, in the words of the elder Miyazaki, “pure and straight as an arrow,” unwilling to compromise their “admiration and respect for the opposite sex.” When complications arise, the protagonists confront them head-on; the younger Miyazaki gives his characters none of the awkwardness with the opposite sex that his father sometimes has (My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki’s Delivery Service).
Respect and thoughtfulness, initiative and integrity are key moral themes. The legacy of World War II and the Korean War weigh on the present as the characters contemplate how to honor the past (symbolized by the Latin Quarter) while looking to the future (the coming Olympics).
Beautifully naturalistic art is a key strength in a Ghibli film, and Poppy Hill is no exception. The town, with its mossy, stone-walled terraces, tile-roofed wooden houses and bustling waterfront, joins other unforgettable Ghibli locations: the bathhouse in Spirited Away, Laputa in Castle in the Sky, and Toyko in Whisper of the Heart (which Poppy Hill resembles in a number of ways). A sprightly jazz-inflected score is among the movie’s key strengths.
In sharing with you my appreciation for From Up on Poppy Hill, I almost feel as if I’m sharing a secret. Not only have most Americans not seen or even heard of it, they haven’t ever seen anything like it. It’s not a film for young children, or for anyone who needs fast-paced gags or explosions. For receptive viewers, though, including thoughtful tweens, it’s a rewarding film to be savored with gratitude.
New on Home Video
- The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (1977) Newly available in a Blu-ray/DVD combo edition with digital copy, Many Adventures is among the gentlest and most charming films for even the youngest viewers in the Disney canon—and the truest to the spirit of the original work, honoring Milne’s distinctive literary voice and the essences of the characters he created. (Kids and up)
- The Fugitive (1993) Celebrating its 20th anniversary with an inexpensive one-disc Blu-ray edition, The Fugitive isn’t just one of the greatest chase movies of all time, it’s also a compelling variation on Hitchcock’s favorite theme—an innocent man wrongly accused. Harrison Ford exudes decency in the title role, risking capture and even death to help others in need. (Teens and up)
- To Be or Not to Be (1942) Newly available in both Blu-ray and DVD from the Criterion Collection, Ernst Lubitsch’s daring, controversial WWII comedy classic gives Jack Benny his best role—and puts the director’s famed “Lubitsch touch” to its greatest test. Blending anti-Nazi satire, black humor, marital stress, and basic buffoonery, Lubitsch builds to a brilliant final act. (Teens and up)