Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

'Poppy Hill' a Charming Japanese Animation Film

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

'Poppy Hill' a Charming Japanese Animation Film

Article excerpt

Pop-music buffs of a certain age (a certain advanced age) may recall "The Sukiyaki Song," sung by Kyu Sakamoto, which hit No. 1 on the U.S. Billboard Chart in 1963 -- the only Japanese song ever to do so. Its English title reference to a hot-pot dish had nothing to do with the tune's actual name ("I Shall Walk Looking Up") or meaning, but was chosen solely to sound user-friendly for Americans. One wag at the time said it was like retitling the Japanese version of "Moon River" as "Beef Stew."

In any case, half a century later, it's the nostalgic theme song of "From Up on Poppy Hill," a charming -- if not groundbreaking -- animated feature from Japan's famed Studio Ghibli.

No monsters, superheroes or talking animals populate Poppy Hill, which is situated high above Yokohama harbor. There, a serious girl named Umi lives in a boarding house with her grandmother, helping to run the place ever since her mother left for America. Each morning, she hoists signal flags in wistful honor of her father, whose ship sank during the Korean War (don't worry, he was on the "good" side).

It's half-past 1963, and all of Japan is eagerly anticipating the forthcoming Tokyo Olympics. Nobody's more excited about that than the boys at Umi's high school -- until they learn that their beloved old clubhouse, dubbed "The Latin Quarter," must be torn down to make way for something more suitably modern.

It's really a clubmansion rather than clubhouse -- Asian- Victorian Gothic in style, falling-down in disrepair, but full of nifty nooks and crannies containing the guys' archaeology, philosophy and debate clubs and the student newspaper (edited by Umi's boy crush, Shun). They're distraught at the prospect of losing their combination student union and bachelor pad.

Mickey and Judy would say, "Let's put on a show to raise money!" Umi and Shun say, "Let's redd up and restore the place to its past grandeur!" Which fits in with this year's Debate Club topic: "Can you get to the future without preserving the past?"

If the ramshackle Latin Quarter reminds you of the fantastic structures in Hayao Miyazaki's "Howl's Moving Castle" or "Spirited Away" (2002 Oscar-winner for best animated feature), you're a serious anime fan with an eye for hereditary talent: "Poppy Hill" was directed by Hayao's son, Goro.

But overall, the younger Mr. Miyazaki replaces the fantasy visions of his father with realist re-creations of a very specific time and place -- the 1964 Olympics that symbolized Japan's reemergence from World War II devastation and disgrace. …

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