I wish I wasn’t hardwired to resist the anime films of Studio Ghibli, given their glowing reputation with most film critics, but that’s just the way I am. It stems, I believe, from my general dislike of their visual approach. Simply put, I cannot bring myself to appreciate their style of animation, particularly in regards to character design – the large, glassy eyes, the vacant expressions that are only occasionally highlighted by static smiles, the simplistic flapping motions of the mouths that give no indication that actual syllables are being produced, the grotesquely exaggerated expressions reserved almost exclusively for the comedy relief, the over-reliance on sweat, tears, and blushing during more humorous moments. Looking at an anime film is, for me, an unpleasant experience.
So it can successfully be argued that I went into From Up on Poppy Hill, Studio Ghibli’s newest film, with a chip on my shoulder. I certainly tried to go in with an open mind, given the fact that, a year ago, I wrote a positive review (begrudgingly so, I must admit) for The Secret World of Arrietty, released in the U.S. through Walt Disney Pictures. But it had less to do with the animation and more to do with the story, an adaptation of Mary Norton’s The Borrowers. I also responded well to the rewritten English-language screenplay and the American voiceover talent, as both grounded the story in such a way that I could actually make sense of it. Yes, I’m aware that foreign films are intended to be challenging for American audiences, but in this particular case, I needed a cultural anchor.
As was the case with Arrietty, the original Japanese screenplay of Poppy Hill by Hayao Miyazaki and Keiko Niwa has been translated into English by Karey Kirkpatrick, and under the direction of Gary Rydstrom, an American cast has been assembled for an English-language dub. Unlike Arrietty, not even these changes could enliven the experience for me – in large part, I strongly suspect, because the plot is thinner than a sheet of paper. So little happens for the first hour that I began to wonder if there really was a story being told, if the entire film was simply an exercise in animation and voiceover work. There’s more to go on during the final act, but even then, the outcome and the events leading up to it are so predictable that the whole thing registers as an anticlimax.
Adapted from the manga series created by Chizuru Takahashi and Tetsuro Sayama, the film is set in Yokohama, Japan in the early 1960s, perhaps a year or several months before the 1964 Summer Olympics. The twofold plot involves Umi, the teenage daughter of a boarding house overlooking a port (voiced by Sarah Bolger), and Shun, a student activist who runs his school’s newspaper (voiced by Anton Yelchin). Umi, who has run the boarding house ever since her mother went to America to study medicine, makes it a point to raise a set of maritime signal flags every morning. It was a habit she learned from her father, a naval officer who was killed in the Korean War when his supply ship was torpedoed. Someone has obviously seen the flags; an anonymous poem about them has been published in the latest edition of the school paper.
Umi eventually becomes involved with the paper, which is printed in the Latin Quarter, a dilapidated building that houses all of the school’s various clubs, including philosophy, astronomy, and math. Umi organizes an effort to renovate the Quarter, which is under threat of demolition by the board of education. Its future depends on the board’s chairman (voiced by Beau Bridges), who must be convinced to leave his office in Tokyo and see it for himself. Meanwhile, both Umi and Shun realize they have the same old picture of three naval officers, one of which is Umi’s father. What secrets of the past link Umi and Shun, who have spent so much time together that romantic feelings have blossomed between them? All is eventually revealed, but believe me, what we learn is far less satisfying than it should be, despite what we’re led to believe.
Rounding out the English-language cast are Jamie Lee Curtis, Gillian Anderson, Chris Noth, Bruce Dern, Christina Hendricks, and Isabelle Fuhrman. Even filmmaker Ron Howard and ventriloquist Jeff Dunham have been included. As nice was it was to hear their voices, and as pleasant as it was for me to listen to the translated dialogue, there wasn’t much about From Up on Poppy Hill I could grab hold of. I’ve already made known my disappointment with the animation; setting that aside, the film is structurally, thematically, and characteristically lacking. I’m wondering if, from now on, I should simply refuse to see any more films made by Studio Ghibli. Since it seems my natural impulse is to distance myself from them, to push against what they set out to do, then really, what’s the point?
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