Hayao Miyazaki is not only one of the world's best animators, but one of cinema's greatest storytellers. Miyazaki is the king of anime, responsible for such classics as My Neighbor Totoro, Castle in the Sky, Spirited Away and The Secret World of Arriety. In an age when computers dominate animation, Miyazaki's Studio Ghibli continues to patiently produce its animated films by hand, which always gives them a quality that we seldom see in American animation anymore. Today we review From Up On Poppy Hill (2011, PG), Miyazaki's coming of age romance.
The plot revolves around the relationship of Umi, a high school sophomore working in her grandmother's bed and breakfast, and Shun, the eccentric leader of a local club of student activists. Though Umi is first turned away by Shun's grandstanding, they are drawn together through their mutual love of an old building on campus they both want to see preserved. Their budding romance is curtailed, however, when Umi and Shun discover that they may - possibly - be brother and sister. The two embark together on a relentless quest to solve the mystery of their origin and sort out the feelings they have for one another.
It is hard to do romance good. I have seen a lot of movies, and a lot of bad romances - here, for example. Romances tend to get even worse when they are "teeny-bopper" romances. But in Poppy Hill Miyazaki gives us something wonderful; so wonderful that I dare say he can school any American director who has tried the coming-of-age theme. Most coming-of-age romances fall back on crude humor to make up for their shortcomings; none of that here.
I don't say this often, but From Up On Poppy Hill was beautiful, achingly beautiful. It explores many different questions - where and when is the line between friendship and romantic love crossed? What is the appropriate response when one has strong feelings for another whose love it is impossible to enjoy? It presents these dilemmas without ever falling into innuendo, and what is even better, without morally compromising Umi or Shun in anyway. Neither character commits any morally questionable act; but they are still very lifelike - extraordinarily relatable, perhaps some of the most relatable characters I have ever seen in a cartoon.
This is not a movie for young people; not because there is anything objectionable, but because the plot will probably be beyond most kids under 13. In fact, there is no reason this needed to be a cartoon. There is nothing fanciful or extraordinary, such as we usually see in Studio Ghibli pictures. It could have been a regular film. But the animation gives it an air of nostalgic innocence that probably could not have been attained otherwise.
I will not spoil it by telling you whether Umi and Shun really are brother and sister or not. Go see this film. You will be powerfully moved.
Yes, achingly, longingly beautiful. I give it my highest rating without any reservation.
Review by Boniface