Film Review: From Up on Poppy Hill

Winsome, winning entry from Studio Ghibli, with a nostalgia-suffused, unstressed ambiance that packs a potent if subtle appeal.

In 1963 Yokohama, Japan, schoolgirl Umi (voiced by Sarah Bolger) is helping her grandmother care for her younger siblings while her mother is away at school in America. Her ship-captain father was lost at sea during the Korean War, and the lonely girl, obsessed with nautical matters, finds budding romance with a fellow student, Shun (Anton Yelchin), who is campaigning to save from demolition the Latin Quarter, a dilapidated old house which has been a kind of club to him and others of his young nerd-scientist set. Shun also has a missing father and it eventually becomes apparent how his and Umi’s family histories are entwined.

Director Goro Miyazaki, son of Japan’s celebrated Studio Ghibli founder Hayao Miyazaki (who co-wrote the screenplay), has fashioned a sweetly nostalgic tale set in a Japan rising from the ashes of Nagasaki and about to host the Olympic Games. However forward-looking the nation tries to be, the past is ever-present, something which definitely affects all these characters. From Up on Poppy Hill is a startlingly gentle animated entry for these days, and one hopes it will find some appeal among moviegoers sated with elaborate fantasy and elbow-nudging humor.

Typical of Ghibli, the atmospheric settings, which capture the townspeople, streets and variant seasons of Yokohama, are poetically rendered with an eye-satisfying richness. I wish more care had gone into the imagery of the lead characters, however, as those huge-eyed, blank-doll faces are overly genre-familiar and lack expressiveness (especially around those ever O-forming mouths). It’s strange, as the subsidiary and extra characters are given more real, more malleable visages, which actually also look convincingly Japanese.

The same disconnect occurs with many of the English-language voices which, although employing the tongues of stars like Gillian Anderson, Beau Bridges, Jamie Lee Curtis, Ron Howard and Chris Noth, sound far too American and at odds with both the characters and the specifically Japanese situations the film posits. Bolger does manage to find the right, gentle inflections for Umi, although Yelchin just sounds like some generic U.S. mall rat. When you hear Kyu Sakamoto’s hauntingly lilting classic song “Sukiyaki,” which was an unexpected international 1963 hit, selling over 13 million units, the authenticity of its sound and mood does much to restore the proper flavor to this winning if melancholy fable about kids trying to both save and discover the past.