Wednesday, April 3, 2013

A comforting animated tale

Co-written by the great Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki and directed by his son, Goro Miyazaki, From Up on Poppy Hill takes us to Yokohama in 1963. There, we meet Umi (voice by Sarah Bolger), a high school girl who's taking care of her grandmother's boarding house while Mom is in America studying. Dad, we learn, was a sea captain who lost his life on a supply ship during the Korean War. Umi not only cooks meals at the boarding house, but watches over two younger siblings and her grandmother. The story begins to develop when Umi joins forces with Shun, a fellow student (Anton Yelchin) who spearheads an effort to save the Latin Quarter, a derelict old mansion that's devoted to a variety of school clubs: philosophy, literature, science, etc. The clubhouse is being threatened with demolition to make room for the 1964 Olympics. (These clubs and the academic ardor displayed by the students who join them may make some parents drool with envy.) A budding romance between Umi and Shun hits a major obstacle, and it's not at all certain that the ramshackle clubhouse will be saved from the wrecking ball. The story -- which deals with the need to balance tradition and modernity -- may not keep you on the edge of your seat, but Miyazaki's creation of the post-war Yokohama has so much story-book allure that you won't mind lingering. Miyazaki does a terrific job with the movie's look, so much so that ordinary life begins to feel like the visual equivalent of comfort food. I mean that as a high compliment. Sometimes, an artist gains more by affirming the small rhythms of life than by looking for whopping helpings of magic.

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