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A sweet film with an endearing storyline, From Up on Poppy Hill is, sadly, forgettable.

 

Set in Japan in 1963, From Up on Poppy Hill is about the balance and marriage of old and new – a fitting theme for director Goro Miyazaki, son of famed Hayao Miyazaki. He takes the helm in an attempt to live up to his father’s legacy. Working from a script penned by Hayao Miyazaki and Keiko Niwa, with the original story written by Tetsuro Sayama, From Up on Poppy Hill is a reserved film with varying degrees of success.

 
Though directors may differ, the winning Studio Ghibli formula has not changed. The animation is as fluid and beautiful as ever, with highly detailed settings and lively characters. English voice talents include Sarah Bolger and Anton Yelchin in the main roles of Umi and Shun. A host of actors such as Gillian Anderson, Jamie Lee Curtis, and Ron Howard lent voices to minor characters. The soundtrack is hip and nostalgic, featuring most heavily the hit, “Ue o Muite Arukou,” which may be better known overseas as “Sukiyaki.”

 
From Up on Poppy Hill focuses on internal struggle, not only for the protagonists, but for the entirety of Japan. It is a story about revering the past while embracing the future, both on a personal and cultural level. Umi and Shun are teenagers dealing with the transition from childhood to adulthood. Both must reconcile with their pasts; Umi, with the death of her father, and Shun, with his mysterious adoption. At the same time, Japan is preparing for the Tokyo Olympics. Eager to modernize, and clean the stain left by WWII, the country battles to find the line between preserving history and moving forward.

 
Children are not unaffected by this movement, which threatens to demolish a 100-year-old building on school grounds in favor of a new establishment. Saving the Latin Quarter is the quest that unites Umi and Shun. It is the children in the story who recognize the importance of history and preservation. Umi describes her love for the Latin Quarter by saying, “It makes us feel connected to our past, like we belong to something.” In the end, the efforts of the student body are enough to save the building, while a new building is erected elsewhere. The message is that old and new are able to coexist. Progression does not mean erasing the past.

 
Unfortunately for From Up on Poppy Hill, the film lacks the adventure and excitement of other Miyazaki favorites. While multiple story lines are presented, they are unable to properly fill time. Shun’s and Umi’s efforts to save the Latin Quarter consist of many long scenes of students cleaning the building. Presenting their case to the school chairman features another long scene where the students simply sit in a waiting room.

 
Discovering the truth about Umi’s and Shun’s fathers is dragged out as well. Umi’s mother and Shun’s adopted father tell the same story, yet it was still deemed necessary to bring in another character at the end of the film to tell the same story again. Speaking to this third man is depicted as very urgent, though he has literally no new information to share. Three separate witnesses give the same account – something one might expect more from a detective drama.

 
This type of relaxed storytelling can be appealing; however, it still must serve a purpose. The film shows reverence for the mundane, which is endearing at times and boring at others. Watching Umi go through her morning routine of cooking rice and watering plants allows the audience to understand her life – that of a young girl who has taken on the role of her absent mother, who would do anything for the people around her. On the other side, several scenes of students cleaning the Latin Quarter, along with a montage of the same, does little to progress the story and could have been shaved down.

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Though Umi’s relationship with Shun is a main focus of the film, it lacks the spark and connection one would expect from a young love story. Their budding emotions are a mystery, as little is shown as to why they are so attracted to each other. The same problem exists between Umi and her mother. Umi’s father is deceased and her mother away in America. This would distress any young girl, and Umi is no exception. She thinks of her father and mother often and wishes for her family to be whole. When her mother finally returns, the welcome is stale. The emptiness and added pressure put on Umi by her mother’s absence never develops into a plot device. Things return to normal, as if there are no consequences. Umi’s mother’s only role is to tell Umi about Shun’s adoption. She is more of a prop than a character. In this sense, it is easy to like the characters in From Up on Poppy Hill, yet hard to care about them.

 
The main problem plaguing From Up on Poppy Hill is mediocrity. It is not a bad film, it is simply not a great one. There were no risks and, thus, no rewards. Little lingers on the memory. Umi and Shun possess no real quirks to differentiate them from the sea of other students. The character one might readily remember is the overzealous Philosophy Club president, who pops up now and again for laughs. The story itself of, “Save X landmark,” and, “Are they or aren’t they siblings?” has been done countless times in many different ways. Not much is added to make this film’s version unique. The most successful element is the underlying theme of history’s importance towards the future.

 
From Up on Poppy Hill does remain a sweet film. It wouldn’t be a bad watch on a lazy afternoon. When put up against the long list of Studio Ghibli and Miyazaki successes, however, it is, unfortunately, forgettable.

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