Wednesday, August 28, 2013

From Up On Poppy Hill: The '60s Come Alive in Japan

Manga is one of those things that you either get or you don't.

Japanese anime attracts a very specific audience and it's something that never much appealed to me.

That being said, once I had children I realized that at some point, there would be an opportunity for re-introduction.

Our older son never got into Dragonball Z and has a passing familiarity with Pokemon. We counted our blessings, but the younger kid is not yet 3, so there's still time to worry.

But I'm a sucker for animated films and the Japanese have produced some masterpieces. A few years back, PONYO opened in one local theater and we went through hopes to see it. It was made by Hayao Miyazaki and his legendary Studio Ghibli, considered by many to be the "Walt Disney" of Japanese animation. Of course, Disney Studios picked up distribution rights and tacked on a number of high-profile voices to stick in the advertisements. But it was the story and the visuals that got us into the theater.

Written by Hayao and directed by his son, Goro, GKIDS and Cinedigm are now releasing FROM UP ON POPPY HILL. It's a "first love" teen story set against the backdrop of Yokohama still recovering from World War II and preparing to host the 1964 Olympics. A friendship grows between high schoolers Umi (Sarah Bolger) and Shun (Anton Yelchin, late of Star Trek fame). Umi's father died on his warboat and she still sets up nautical flags every morning. Now, is somebody answering?

Like many other multi-generational tales, this one has familiar broad strokes – an older culture fighting to retain control versus spirited youths who want to remake their world in their own image. Clearly Hayao is remembering the Japan of his "glory days," and the film is a fitting tribute to the end of days for a certain way of life. While many customs remain, modern Japanese would be surprised at how much has changed in the past 2-3 generations.

Once again, the voice talent is a potpourri of names, including Gillian Anderson, Sarah Bolger, Beau Bridges, Jamie Lee Curtis, Bruce Dern, Christina Hendricks, Ron Howard, Chris Noth, Emily Osment, Aubrey Plaza, to name a few. But try not to fixate on "naming that voice" and watch the transfixing landscapes and see how the characters interact. It's definitely a Japanese perspective, no matter how English language adapter Karey Kirkpatrick (James and the Giant Peach, Chicken Run, Charlotte’s Web) and director Gary Rydstrom move things along for American audiences.

 Full disclosure: The Blu-Ray/DVD set comes with many bonus features and we've just gotten through the original film. There are feature-length storyboards; a celebrity cast recording featurette with behind-the-scenes footage and interviews; an interview with Goro Miyazaki; the original Japanese trailer and TV spots; a music video for the theme song by Aoi Teshima; and a featurette about Yokohama, exploring the history of the sea-side setting where the film takes place. Good grief. That's another whole evening's worth of entertainment (although maybe too much for the younger kids).

I would stop short of calling FROM UP ON POPPY HILL a masterpiece. But it's a solid piece of Japanese craft and one of the better animated features of the year. Let's see how things develop next spring when the Best Animated Film nominees are debated.

FROM UP ON POPPY HILL is available from Amazon. Here is the trailer:

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