From Up On Poppy Hill – Studio Ghibli Movie

From Up On Poppy Hill
From Up On Poppy Hill
From Up On Poppy Hill

A new film from Studio Ghibli is always an exciting prospect, but this one came with, for me, a certain degree of hesitancy. A post-Korean War slice of reality directed by Goro Miyazaki…could Ghibli deliver their usual magic in a non-fantastical setting, and could Goro-san improve from the utter disappointment that was “Tales From Earthsea”? The simple answer is yes, on both counts. The more complex answer is…well, there really isn’t a more complex answer. “From Up On Poppy Hill” is sublime, wondrous, heart-warming, thrilling, emotional, exhilarating, life-affirming, beautiful and so many other things I could just cut-and-paste a dictionary of positive terms here and be done with it. Out of five stars this is a 10 star film. This is Ghibli at its very best and it was an absolute pleasure to sit in that screening room and experience their stunning tale unfold over and hour and a half.
Written by the legendary Hiyao Miyazaki and Keiko Niwa, and based on the 1980 manga by Tetsuro Sayama & Chizuru Takahashi, the story revolves around Umi Matsuzaki, a 16 year old high schooler in the Port of Yokohama. It is 1963 and she lives in a boarding house with her grandmother and several female residents, looking after their needs every morning and evening, and heading off to school during the daytime. Her mother, a professor, is on an extended trip to the US, and her father was killed during the Korean War. Every morning Umi raises signal flags hoping to reach the spirit of her drowned father. One day, the school newspaper prints a poem about her flags and she heads off to the clubhouse to find out who is responsible. It is here she, with her younger sister Sora, encounter Shun Kazama, a young man who is part of the journalism club and popular with the girls at the school for his antics trying to save the clubhouse from closure. Umi is instantly drawn to Shun, and volunteers to help with the paper, and encourages the boys in the clubhouse to tidy it up as a tactic to saving it from demolition. Through her involvement, the girls at the school rally to help the boys tidy, clean and renovate the building. Meanwhile, Shun visits Umi’s boarding house home and discovers (without her knowledge) that her father might also be his. This throws him off centre and builds a wall of silence between them, much to Umi’s distress. Finally she is able to get the truth from him, but even though they now believe themselves to be brother and sister, they still profess their love for each other, and they suffer with the pain of having to put that love to one side. As this melodrama unfolds, the school clubhouse, now beautifully restored to its European splendour (it is called the Latin Quarter) is condemned by the school board. Umi, Shun and their friend Shiro head in to Tokyo to petition the school board’s chairman to come see the building and save it. Elated by her trip to Tokyo but saddened by the change in her relationship with Shun, Umi heads home to find her mother returned. She reveals all to her mother and…well, let’s not ruin the final act, eh?

I honestly cannot speak highly enough of this film. The story is compelling and incredibly moving. I don’t think I’ve ever seen tears in the eyes of fellow press reviewers before, but there were a few at the end of this sublime movie. We were fortunate enough to see a subtitled Japanese original version (I know, subtitles aren’t for everyone, but I am a Ghibli purist and whilst I always enjoy the dubbed versions, I do appreciate seeing the original and hearing the original Japanese actors) so I can’t comment on the UK dub (although the previous dubs for Ponyo, Arrietty, Howl and Spirited Away were all superb) but I am sure it will be as good as you would expect from Ghibli. This is a nostalgic film, seen from a teenager’s perspective, with a fairly predictable plot but which nevertheless leaves you feeling elated and uplifted. It doesn’t do anything radical or shocking, which some may feel is a little disappointing, and it doesn’t have the same visual flair as Spirited Away or Howl’s Moving Castle. But then this film isn’t a fantasy epic. It isn’t escapist wish-fulfilment. It is a slice of life drama with a strong comedic vein running throughout. It is a moment in Japanese history that few outside of the country are aware of, and it is an important coming of age tale that works because its female protagonist is someone we can instantly empathise with. Once again Studio Ghibli, under the leadership of Myazaki-san have offered us a strong female lead in whom we can see some of ourselves but more importantly through who we can learn about this very specific time and place in Japanese history. No, the story doesn’t take us anywhere new, but I, for one, was happy to be cocooned in the warm world of Ghibli, to be entertained, moved and entranced.

Visually the film is nothing short of sumptuous. Ghibli fans will love the hand-drawn style so reminiscent from Ponyo, Totoro and so many others. Every frame is stuffed with fine detail, depth and variety. From sweeping seascapes to winding narrow roads, from bustling ports to hectic schoolyards…everything is beautifully animated, with a slightly soft tone but vibrant lighting. Within five minutes I was sighing with pleasure at feeling so at home in this world. Much like Only Yesterday, Ocean Waves or Whisper of the Heart, this is the real world through the lens of Ghibli’s unique eye…at once recognisable and precise, yet at the same time ever so softer and more inviting. In this instance, we experienced a more grown up version of the port town in Ponyo, a teenager’s view of a busy Japanese town changing in the post war boom. I know I wasn’t the only person at the screening to be entranced by these wonderful images.

The soundtrack was equally nostalgic, sadly not by Ghibli go-to-guy Joe Hisaishi (if you’ve not heard his soundtrack to the game Ni No Kuni you are missing out on a real treat), but instead a mix of new tracks by Satoshi Takebe and Japanese versions of some period songs, some European, some American. It works very well for the style and tone of the movie, but I did miss Joe’s input, and the film doesn’t have an immediately memorable theme. Overall though, the music only adds to the brilliance of the movie.

Audio-wise you can expect the usual high-quality sound effects and sound balance. There’s nothing too bombastic or ear-shattering, but the sound designers have clearly had a lot of fun bringing the school and clubhouse scenes to life. And the soundscape of the port, and that of pre-Olympics Tokyo are vibrant and dynamic without sounding like a pastiche.

My only negative with “From Up On Poppy Hill” is that I can’t watch it again, right now. I would happily beg the lovely folk at StudioCanal for a preview BluRay…if I had a first born (I don’t) I might even offer a trade! No, seriously, if they are reading this, let me know what I have to offer to get a copy.

Hyperbole aside, this is just about the perfect (non-fantasy) Ghibli film to date. I am a real fan of slice of life anime, and to see Ghibli take the genre and do something so perfect with it was a real joy. I left the screening smiling, excited and desperate to see it again. It is a film Ghibli fans will thoroughly enjoy, but more importantly it is a film to introduce non-Ghibli fans to anime and Studio Ghibli. If you know someone who is averse to monsters and fantasy, and thinks anime is just for kids, get them to see “From Up On Poppy Hill”…it will show them just what great storytelling can be done using animation, and how anime in particular, and Ghibli specifically, can tell tales in way no-one and no other medium can manage.

My score out of 5: 10 (and maybe another 10!)

Laputa – Castle in the Sky. Review

Available for the first time in high definition on Blu-ray Double Play courtesy of Studio Ghibli and master animator Hayao Miyazaki Laputa: Castle In the Sky is an imaginative tale full of mystery and adventure.
Bluray review by Neil Gardner

Let me confess at the very start of this review, that I am an unashamed Studio Ghibli fanboy. It was Spirited Away that began my relationship with anime and manga, and I’ve been ravenously devouring every Ghibli morsel as soon as it becomes available.

Laputa was the second Ghibli movie I saw, and on that first viewing I truly fell in love with the studio, and Hiyao Miyazaki’s work. It is easy to see why he is referred to as the Walt Disney of the East, but I think he is much more than that. He is certainly Disney, but also Lassiter, Lang, Tolkien, Blighton, Rowling, and so many others. It is a very Western thing to try and pigeon hole someone or liken them to one other person, but what Miyazaki and his team do is more akin to whole swathes of Western talent.

So…on to the review of the 2011 Bluray release of Laputa. Unlike previous Ghibli bluray releases, I wasn’t blown away immediately by the transfer. While it is definitely an improvement on the DVD, it doesn’t feel like the sea change we got with Nausicaa or Ponyo. The colours are vibrant and well defined, the sound is clean with a decent mix, but somehow, for some reason, I just didn’t get the wow factor as I sat down to view the disc.
Now, this isn’t a reflection on the brilliance of the film or the plot. Laputa holds up to multiple viewings easily…and this must have been the 14th or 15th time I’d watched it. I’ve only ever had one beef with this Ghibli masterpiece, and that is that I find it a little too long. It is made up of a large number of set pieces, all of which are exciting, character driven and necessary for he plot. But by the time our heroes finally reach the mysterious Laputa, I feel like I need a break for five minutes to get my second wind.

Laputa ? Castle in the Sky
If you don’t know the film, it is the story of two kids searching for the mystical land of Laputa, a city said to be floating in the clouds. The army are also searching for the city in order to learn it’s many secrets, while a pirate gang are looking for it to loot the rumoured treasure vaults. On their adventure the kids meet miners and friendly pirates, evil secret agents, greedy soldiers and destructive yet kindly robots. It is all set in a European, industrial landscape…similar to other Ghibli films, and as with much of Miyazaki’s work, flying and the sky are key themes.

I don’t want to spoil the film for anyone who hasn’t seen it yet…but if you’ve seen Howl’s Moving Castle or Ponyo you will immediately feel at home with this movie. It is hand painted and hand animated and has that unique Ghibli feel of warmth and friendship, fantasy and reality…all mixed together to tell a tale that will resonate with children and adults. If the only Ghibli film you’ve seen is Spirited Away then you may find this one a little more basic in it’s style and pacing, but give it a try and soon you’ll come to appreciate Miyazaki’s tone and approach to story telling. This is a lovely entry into the world of Ghibli, from which you can move on to some truly wonderful films.

As for whether this makes for a good bluray purchase…well, as a fanboy I have to say yes, it does, as it is certainly the best version of the film you can own. The English dub is superb, but you also get the original Japanese audio (well worth listening to). While the disc isn’t overly burdened by extras, there are a couple of nice documentaries and some behind the scenes material, as well as the usual Ghibli previews. But I wonder if now is the time for Ghibli to release one or two of it’s big hitters. I think we need to see My Neighbour Totoro, Howl’s Moving Castle or Spirited Away…something to really show off what Ghibli can do in High Definition. It is wonderful to own this film in a definitive edition, but I can’t say it is as exciting a release or improvement in picture quality as Nausicaa was. I would love to see what Spirited Away can look and sound like on Bluray disc…so come on Optimum, stop making us wait, let’s see those big films!

Laputa – Castle In The Sky is a must have for all Ghibli fans, and a definite good investment for any anime fan, and especially for anyone looking for an exciting adventure film for the kids (of all ages!). Let’s hope it is soon joined by a few more of it’s stablemates.