Back Add a Comment Share:
Facebook Button

Feature


Yokohama, 1963. Japan is picking itself up from the devastation of World War II and preparing to host the Olympics. The mood is one of both optimism and conflict as the young generation struggles to throw off the shackles of a troubled past. Against this backdrop of hope and change, a friendship begins to blossom between high school students Umi (Masami Nagasawa/Sarah Bolger) and Shun (Junichi Okada/Anton Yelchin) – but a buried secret from their past emerges to cast a shadow on the future and pull them apart. (From GKIDS’ official synopsis)

From Up On Poppy Hill
Director Goro Miyazaki, the eldest son of co-writer and legendary filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki, made his feature debut with 2006’s Tales From Earthsea, the second adaptation of Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea book series. The combination of Le Guin’s story and the Studio Ghibli aesthetic was definitely reason for celebration, but the final film was kind of a mess and, despite some nice visuals and the basic kernel of the original books, it is probably the closest thing to a bad movie in the entire Ghibli catalogue. By many accounts, including that of Hayao Miyazaki himself (the father and son ended up not speaking to each other throughout much of the production), the lion’s share of the blame lied with the director. But feature animation direction is very difficult and Earthsea was a very tall order to fill for a novice, so the failure didn’t ruin Goro’s reputation as an up-and-coming filmmaker – it just sullied it a little (he ‘won’ the Japanese equivalent to a Golden Raspberry Award for his direction).

For his second film, the young Miyazaki worked from a script co-written by his father and Keiko Niwa ( Tales From Earthsea and The Secret World of Arrietty) and based on the comic series by Tetsurô Sayama. The scale of From Up on Poppy Hill is significantly smaller than Tales From Earthsea, but the characters are more serious and grounded. Unfortunately for Miyazaki, the grand visuals of Earthsea were enough to disguise his narrative and thematic problems – for this film he is left with naked emotions and flair-free storytelling. Almost everything that should render From Up on Poppy Hill an easier film to make is moot, because the technical stuff was never Miyazaki’s problem. But the Miyazakis weren’t fighting during this production and Hayao’s influence as a master storyteller looms large over Goro’s previous weaknesses. This time, the narrative is powerfully grounded, the structure is tight (the final act’s rhythm is a bit off), and, most importantly, the characters are relatable, well-rounded human beings – not dull, uninspired ciphers.

From Up On Poppy Hill
From Up on Poppy Hill is a period piece that covers some pretty serious subject matter, but it’s not emotionally demanding, like Isao Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies. The writers keep things relatively light, treating the complex political themes and charmingly innocent love story with respectful humour. The film’s 92 minutes breeze by without any action (there is a single, incredibly brief war flashback) or fantasy critter sidekicks and offers only a hint of the cartoony slapstick that tends to cushion the poignancy of some of the studio’s ‘heavier’ films, leaving the viewer with a uniquely buoyant feeling that can’t quite be defined. That said, it’s still not a child-friendly movie – not because anything thematically objectionable or ‘adult’ happens, but because I just can’t imagine the subject matter would appeal to the same audience that is mystified by the simple pleasures of Totoro or the epic scope of Laputa: Castle in the Sky.

Miyazaki’s animation directors were Ghibli regulars Akihiko Yamashita (who was credited as assistant director on Tales From Earthsea), Atsushi Yamagata (who also works on popular, non-Ghibli TV animation), and  Kitaro Kosaka (who has been working as an animator with Hayao Miyazaki since Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind). From Up on Poppy Hill doesn’t ever look cheap, but it is a much more modest film than passing fans would expect from Ghibli. Despite its recent release, Miyazaki’s film recalls the more mellow and natural looks of Takahata’s Only Yesterday and Yoshifumi Kondo’s Whisper of the Heart (minus the occasional fantasy elements, of course). Miyazaki and his artists don’t skimp on the locations or frame-rates, but they minimize their camera movements and keep their compositions simple (aside from a single, stylized dream sequence). It’s a rich, visual experience without being a particularly flashy or garish one.

From Up On Poppy Hill

Video


Apparently, Disney’s deal to release Ghibli’s new films expired with The Secret World of Arrietty and a company called GKIDS (Guerrilla Kids International Distribution Syndicate) picked up the option. GKIDS, who licenses catalogue Ghibli titles to Disney, has released most of their stuff through New Video Group, including the Academy Award-nominated The Secret of Kells and A Cat in Paris, but a tiny company called Cinedigm Entertainment scored the license (for the record: GKIDS will be releasing Grave of the Fireflies on Blu-ray through Sentai Filmworks). The image quality of this 1.78:1, 1080p transfer more than meets the standards set by the Disney discs and should please Ghibli fans very much. The image is hyper-clean throughout the entire film without many notable compression noise or blocking effects (there’s some minor low level noise in the solid background reds). Detail levels depend almost entirely on the painted background environments. Masami’s home is clean and sharp, nature is simplified and almost impressionistic, and the boy’s dorm (dubbed ‘The Latin Quarter’) is a filthy, busy mess – making it the ideal location to really gauge the quality of the more complex patterns and textures. The differentiation between the cells and the backgrounds are unmistakable without creating a stylistic discord or causing any edge enhancement effects. The colours are incredibly rich and the comparatively simple animation style helps press the vivid qualities of the warmer hues. Some sequences are a bit dark and gloomy (with smooth black levels), but it’s more common that the frame is bursting with an eclectic collection of hues.

From Up On Poppy Hill

Audio


GKIDS and Cinedigm have provided an English dub and the original Japanese dialogue tracks, both presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.0 sound. Despite the sort of confusing rights history, it seems that the English dub was not thrown together willy-nilly – it was overseen by sound effects engineer Gary Rydstrom and produced through Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall’s Kennedy/Marshall Company, who (besides regularly co-producing films with Steven Spielberg) has produced some English versions of international animated features, including, most recently, The Secret World of Arrietty. So it’s not a Disney release, but it’s getting basically the same treatment in terms of audio mixing. Rydstrom’s efforts aside, the Japanese track is still the better option. Besides generally better casting (the English cast is fine and is even given some funny lines that aren’t shared with the Japanese version, but they don’t fit their characters as well), the Japanese track is notably louder. Regardless of the shared DTS-HD codec it’s pretty obvious that the English track has the lower bit-rate. Both tracks feature generally the same sound design outside of the dialogue tracks, of course, which include some relatively loud crowd sequences. Panning effects are relatively rare (mopeds and boats move through the frame, some students run off-screen, et cetera), but there is quite a bit of basic, natural ambience and unassuming, immersive effects. Satoshi Takebe’s period-friendly jazz, surf, and French-inspired score is wonderfully augmented by some of the era’s pop mainstays, like ‘I Shall Walk Looking Up.’ The music tracks are big, warm, and rich, and the missing discrete LFE channel is never really a problem.

Note: This disc does not include the original Japanese titles via seamless branching, like some of Disney’s Ghibli releases. It does, however, include subtitles and dubtitles.

From Up On Poppy Hill

Extras


Again, this isn’t a Disney/Ghibli release, but almost everything about it smells like one, including the extras. These begin with an interview with Goro Miyazaki (17:40, HD). The director, who nervously wrings his hands throughout the entire interview, mostly discusses making a period piece and the real-life Yokohama location. This is followed by Yokohama: Stories of the Past and Present (22:40, HD), a further primer on the region’s history that is mostly made up of film and photographic images that compare the city throughout the years, from the late ‘50s to now. Up next is a behind-the-scenes featurette with the English voice cast (21:50, HD), hosted by producer Gary Rydstrom and English scriptwriter Karey Kirkpatrick. The disc also includes footage from a press conference announces the theme song (40:30, HD), which goes on to be about the ways the  Tohoku/Fukushima earthquake effected the production (everyone gets pretty emotional), footage from a speech Hayao Miyazaki makes after a staff screening of the film (6:10, HD), ‘Summer of Farewells’ music video (5:50, HD), feature-length storyboards, Japanese teasers, trailers, and TV spots, the US trailer, and trailers for other GKIDS releases.

From Up On Poppy Hill

Overall


From Up on Poppy Hill is a sweet and beguiling film that is more than worthy of standing among Studio Ghibli’s collection of beloved animated classics. Director Goro Miyazaki is officially forgiven for dropping the ball so hard on Tales From Earthsea. Fans of the studio’s more fantastical movies may fear that they’ll be alienated by more grounded subject matter, but I suspect they’ll find themselves surprised by the relatable characters and charmed by the breezy narrative. GKIDS and Cinedigm Entertainment have also done a bang-up job with this Blu-ray/DVD Combo Pack release, meeting the A/V standards set by Disney’s Ghibli releases and even surpassing their usual standards regarding extra material.

* Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray image quality.


Links: