(This review originally appeared at Reel Film News on April 19, 2013.)
Imagine, if you will, riding down the highway in your convertible on a gorgeous, traffic- and cloud-free Sunday. You’re enjoying yourself and taking note of the scenery and how beautiful it is when, suddenly, a foul smell permeates the air. The driving and the scenery is still great, but you’ve got to deal with this sudden discomfort, and you’re wondering when it will go away, if at all. This sums up Studio Ghibli’s From Up On Poppy Hill; the scenery’s great, the journey’s fine, but there’s a quick turn of events that makes the movie shudder to a near halt. However, in true Studio Ghibli fashion, you’re always guaranteed a worthy story, and From Up On Poppy Hill definitely has one worth the trouble.
There’s no denying its loveliness and its heart, and the wraparound story is a lot of fun to watch. As Japan readies itself for the 1964 Olympics, students at Isogo High School are facing the destruction of their beloved, albeit decrepit clubhouse. Literally, it’s a house where various academic clubs – astronomy, philosophy, architecture, even the student newspaper – gather to discuss, often humorously, their various interests. To call it an eyesore is probably an insult to the eyesore community; this place is the pits. With readying itself for the Olympics, Japan is obsessed with making everything “new,” and that obsession has trickled down to the school, whose superiors want to replace this clubhouse with a newer, more functional building. It’s fun to watch as the student body goes from debating whether to tear it down or renovate it; there are very touching points made concerning tradition and getting rid of the old for the sake of looking new, and that’s when this movie starts down its merry path towards… awkwardness.
Two students – Umi Matsuzaki (Sarah Bolger) and Shun Kazama (Anton Yelchin) – meet during a stunt involving Shun jumping into a brackish pool from the clubhouse roof. Through the course of the movie, they hit it off, with both Shun and Umi acting clumsily aloof and nonchalant when they’re around each other, as they try to hide their feelings. But there’s something in each of their pasts that turns this movie into a lovely party with an uncomfortably large elephant in the punchbowl, and it kind of hampers the enjoyment of the film. It’s almost enough to negate any enjoyment I had with the movie, but not quite. There’s something magical about Studio Ghibli films, and this movie’s no exception. The colors, the characters, and the absolute joy of watching it all come together to be artful and personal are why I like watching Ghibli films.
You find yourself really hoping and praying that things will turn out all right for both Umi and Shun, even though their circumstance may leave you scratching your head at why certain things are said and done. The wraparound story and the characters that populate it are well worth the time spent with this movie, and, as always, the animation is exceptional. The US voice casting is spot-on, with talent ranging from Yelchin (most known for being Pavel Chekov in J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek reboot) to Gillian Anderson (The X-Files) to Jamie Lee Curtis to Beau Bridges. Studio Ghibli has, in my opinion, never turned in a bad product, and they still haven’t; it’s just the themes of From Up On Poppy Hill that cause a little unrest. While the uneasy plot development takes up most of the second half, it is easily overcome by the joy that arises from the rest of the movie.