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From Up on Poppy Hill is the newest Miyazaki film. But don’t get too excited; the Miyazaki in charge is Goro the son and not Hayao the father.

One of the movie’s credits reads “Planning and screenplay by Hayao Miyazaki,” and then a metronome ticks off a few bars, setting the music on its at-first uncertain course, gaining confidence after the first few measures. It’s a nice passing of the torch from father to son ... “here’s your tempo, son, now... begin.”

Before the Olympics Came

Umi raises a flag for her father
Umi raises a flag for her father

The setting is Tokyo, just before the 1964 Olympics. A girl, Umi, works at a boarding house, cooking every meal for all the guests. In the mornings she raises 2 semaphore flags each day in memory of her father, who was a ship captain, sunk in the Korean war. Then she runs to school. On a tugboat in the harbor, a boy, Shun, sees the flags go up every morning before he disembarks to ride his bike the rest of the way to the same school.

They meet after he publishes a poem about “the girl who raises flags.” He publishes the school paper from an old house on the campus used by all the extracurricular clubs — newspaper, archery, philosophy, astronomy. The house itself is a charming, cluttered old place, full of character and characters.

There is a debate over whether to knock the house down and rebuild it, or whether to preserve it. The newspaper poet wants to preserve it, and is willing to stage a publicity stunt for his cause. The stunt makes him a minor celebrity at school and inspires the girl to go visit him at the house. She too becomes enthralled with the house, and perhaps with him.

Later in the movie, another subplot about a connection from the past between Umi and Shun takes them out into the harbor to meet an old sailor from the Navy who knew Umi’s father.

The Vital Spark

The movie’s conclusion isn’t very interesting or satisfying. It’s odd that that matters because you might say the same thing about many of Hayao Miyazaki’s films. Hayao’s films are more about character and place than plot and resolution.

In fact, I would go so far as to say that many are mostly about the sense of place. Hayao has some sort of magical touch that makes me yearn to visit the places where his films were “shot” — the spring-green city of Whisper of the Heart, the wildflower fields of Howl’s Moving Castle, and the quaint, lived-in European city of Kiki’s Delivery Service. Even his disaster areas are appealing — the sun comes out on the flooded world of Ponyo, and the dark medieval forest of Princess Mononoke is alive and life-giving.

Yet somehow, From Up on Poppy Hill doesn’t capture the magic. The cluttered house is inspired, and I like it, but it doesn’t capture my dreams. The multi-generational boarding house has a very humane mix of kindness and casual thoughtlessness, but I don’t long to join the residents. Perhaps the most distracting and disappointing detail I noticed is that all of the boys at school walk and stand exactly alike — hands in pockets, indistinguishable from each other, except in close-up. Maybe it was intentional, but it feels like a shortcut — something I never felt in a Hayao Miyazaki film.

On its own merits, From Up on Poppy Hill is a decent animated film, a charmer for adults and captivating for kids. But it’s impossible not to compare Goyo’s film to his father’s work. And for this devoted fan of Hayao Miyazaki, it’s missing a vital spark.