'From Up on Poppy Hill' review: Anime king's son proves he's a chip off the sentimental old block

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The latest anime from Japan's famed Studio Ghibli breaks one of the cardinal rules, at least in Hollywood, of animation.

Can the story be told without animation? If so, why animate it?

There is no mythical "My Neighbor Totoro," no magical "Howl's Moving Castle," no supernatural sea sprite ( "Ponyo") to visualize. "From Up on Poppy Hill" is a simple melodrama, a period piece set in Yokohama in the months leading up to the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

But it's a lovely film, a sentimental parable that carefully recreates a post-war Japan obsessed with obliterating its past. And at the school where Umi and her sister Sora study, that simply won't do.

The battered old frat-house/ clubhouse at the school's center, the "Latin Quarter," is scheduled for demolition. The uniformed boys enlist the uniformed girls in their cause -- saving The Latin Quarter. And that's where 17-year-old Umi (voiced by Sarah Bolger) first sets her dreamy eyes on the reckless firebrand, Shun (Anton Yelchin).

Their unfolding relationship takes a back seat to the world the Studio Ghibli animators and director Goro Miyazaki are intent on creating. The school, especially the Latin Quarter, is peppered with all manner of "types," argumentative students who debate Big Ideas in the chemistry club, the philosophy club ( Ron Howard voices the president of that one), the newspaper, where Shun is editor, and the archeology club.

"The crux of the matter -- how can we make archeology cool again?" Indiana Jones was still 16 years in the future, remember.

The students tussle over demolishing "the relics of a bygone era." They break into folk songs whenever the teachers show up to see what the ruckus is over.

"You can't move into the future without first knowing the past!"

Miyazaki, the late-life convert to his father Hayao Miyazaki's art form, focuses on nostalgia, a "simpler" Japan. Much of the movie simply follows Umi through her vast array of daily chores -- shopping and cooking the rice, vegetables, fish and pork for the boarding house she runs for her grandmother while Mom is in America, studying. Her ship-captain father is dead. But every day, Umi raises signal flags for the passing ships, in tribute.

Hayao co-scripted this comic book adaptation for his son. Goro's first venture in anime was the fantastical "Tales from the Earthsea," a much more suitable subject for Studio Ghibli's efforts. "Poppy Hill" shows Goro to have a sense of humor and a gift for creating images and characters that tug at the heart.

But "From Up on Poppy Hill" is more to be appreciated than treasured: an animated time capsule for a Japan that went under the bulldozer long before Studio Ghibli came along to sentimentalize it.

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FROM UP ON POPPY HILL
2.5 stars (Grade: C-plus)
Cast: The voices of Sarah Bolger, Anton Yelchin, Gillian Anderson, Jamie Lee Curtis, Ron Howard, Beau Bridges
Directed by Goro Miyazaki, written by Hayao Miyazaki and Keiko Niwa, based on the Tetsuro Sayama comic book.  A Studio Ghibli/ Gkids release.
Running time: 1:31
MPAA rating: PG for mild thematic elements and some incidental smoking images
Photo/Video credit: Studio Ghibli/ Gkids