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Slick’s Nit-Picks: From Up On Poppy Hill (Blu-ray/DVD combo pack)

The popularity of animé in the United States is steadily growing, but even today when CGI movies nearly dominate our theatres, animé remains a bit of an obscurity. Most of our mainstream exposure is limited to what airs on Adult Swim. Many cable providers do not carry the animé network and when feature films do come here they only see limited screenings in the IFC theatre or similar rare movie houses. The seeming exception to the rule are the works of Studio Ghibli, aka the house that Miyazaki built. Classics like Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke and My Neighbor Totoro air often air on regular cable networks and have even seen big screen releases in rare instances. It could be the high level of quality that goes into each production; or it could be the detailed storylines. It might even be the fact that they are the only Japanese animated films that seem capable of getting big name American actors to voice the English translations. Whatever the secret may be, Miyazaki films give us family friendly stories with high production value that while they are clearly Japanese, they take us back to the age of hand drawn Disney movies with characters that captivate and capture the hearts of their viewers. On September 3, 2013, Studio Ghibli looks to do this once again with a direct to video release set in Japan's post-WWII reconstruction period. Prepare yourself to learn about young love, true friendship and triumph over adversity. These are lessons that are all taught From Up On Poppy Hill.

STAND FAST, SINK NOT The year is 1963 and the locale is Yokohama. Japan is still reeling from the atomic bomb detonations from eighteen years ago, but the country is resilient. Everyone is excited about the Tokyo winning the bid to host the 1964 Olympic Games. It is an opportunity for Japan to show the world that the bombings did not destroy their spirit. It also means financial gain for the country as a whole as tourism, trade, etc. increase because of the event. Our story itself has little to do with any of this, but the influence of the time does. As the country is looking to the future, many of the old ways are being done away with. Oddly enough, the young people of Konan Middle School have a problem with this. They know that they are the country's future, but as they look forward, they feel a strong need to acknowledge and preserve their past. This desire is made tangible as the students band together to preserve their campus' club building, The Latin Quarter. The story's heroine Umi Matsuzaki teams up with her friend/crush Shun Kazama to rally the entire student body in the restoration and preservation of the building. This brings them together as an ill-fated couple; preserving the past leads them to discover a secret that makes Shun pull away from Umi. The goal of the student body is to save something precious to them despite adults deciding to take it away. Umi has something precious that she wants to preserve as well, but the “goddess of good luck” may not have enough of it on her side to save herself.

Format Differences: It is ironic the way the picture differs on the different versions presented by the combo pack here. If you choose to watch the DVD, the lower resolution makes the movie look like a film that was shot with older camera equipment. It literally looks like an older movie than the same film viewed on blu-ray. This makes the obvious choice the blu-ray. There are no hiccups in the picture and when viewed on an optimized HDTV a great experience only gets better.

SPRINGTIME OF YOUTH This is one of the few instances in animé where I liked both the original Japanese and English voice casts. I almost always prefer the Japanese dialogue over the dub and that is still the case here. One thing that the English dub had over the original is the opening monologue that Umi gives at the beginning. She gives a backstory that helps the viewer understand what is going on that is completely absent from the Japanese version. Other than that, the “issue” I have with the dubbed version is that it is Americanized. The story is set in Japan and the English dub removes much of the Japanese feel. The use of honorifics is completely ignored and a lot of Japanese customs are omitted. If you don't watch a lot of animé it will not matter, but I also think that little things like this are part of what make it difficult for animé to pick up over here. A prime example is the confession scene between Umi and Shun. If you watch the English version, it seems a bit forced while it flows more naturally in Japanese. You usually do not see scenes like that in American movies and TV amongst teenagers but in Japan it is very common. There is definitely a little bit lost in translation despite the otherwise competent English voice cast. My advice to all who watch this is to enjoy it in its original form; after all, reading is fundamental.

MAGICAL WORLD OF GHIBLI Studio Ghibli fans are used to tales of fantasy and magic in worlds that seem just close enough to our own that you wonder if Kodoma live in the trees outside. For nearly thirty years, the films generated by this company, most of which were directed by Hayao Miyazaki (and some by his son, Gorō) have captivated viewers worldwide. The imagery used and high detail of the animation are what generated comparisons to early Disney work and the praise has always been well deserved. With this home release of Poppy Hill (originally in theatres in 2011), viewers see a world that is based in real-life, set in a period that truly made Japan what it is today. Even with the complete absence of mystical forces and creatures beyond imagination, the world presented is none the less full of wonderful imagery. The first time we see inside the Latin Quarter it does seem like another world and the devotion of the students of Konan to save it sends a message of how people today should be coming together instead of tearing each other apart. Umi raising the flags every day, knowing that her father can never come home was a beautiful symbol of familial devotion that again, you just do not see enough of in the world today. Visual effects do not always have to involve bullet-time and explosions to make you sit back and say “wow.” Sit and watch this movie with your family and you will see exactly what I mean.

This song hits me in the heart

MUSIC MAKES THIS HIGH (SCHOOL) While this high school-themed movie is not a musical (I went there), music plays an important role here. Satoshi Takebe used a combination of classic Japanese songs sung by students, favorites known throughout the nation and original pieces to create a soundtrack as full of imagery as the animation itself. During the debate when the student body breaks out into song to fool the principal, you cannot help but laugh at the cleverness of the students, Towards the end, when the students sing “The Indigo Waves (Kon’iro no Uneri Ga)” to the chairman, you just wanna stand up and clap. The music in this film sets the tone for each and every scene in such a way that sometimes you do not even realize that it is there. Once again, I am referring only to the original Japanese music. The translation just does not have the same power as it would have were songs actually written in English. I guess I am just a purist. Takebe’s score feels like as much of a character as those on screen and that is the way it should be.

Audio Format: The audio is available in English and Japanese 5.0 on both the blu-ray and the DVD. It is nothing special, but what is noteworthy is that it sounds like a movie that came out of the 1960s era. I don’t really know how to explain it, but the audio is not the same as what you would normally hear in a movie made today. I am not sure if this was done purposely, but it winds up being an additional device that adds to the film’s charm.

I was happily surprised by this film. I am not usually a fan of period pieces, regardless of whether they be fiction or fact, animated or live action. I admit to watching a lot of animé, but it is usually with a much more comedic tone or action-oriented. From Up On Poppy Hill is a family-friendly movie about the importance of friendship, family and tradition that anyone can enjoy. While the story was completely different, it reminded me of the animated film, Summer Wars and the animé series, Sakura-sō no Pet na Kanojo because of this emphasis. Poppy Hill has a large cast of characters , but the story only focuses on the two main ones. The storytelling is done in a way that said fact is apparent, but not slapping you in the face and that keeps the story flowing naturally. If you enjoy animé about high school, you will probably like this movie. If you like the recycled stuff Disney has put out lately then this one might be more than you are looking for but you will love it if you enjoy their classic stuff. Get yourself some popcorn; if you get sentimental, maybe some tissues, and enjoy this latest home release from Studio Ghibli. The original animation and dialogue are a must see. The English adaptation is a step down, but not a huge one. It is honestly no lesser in quality, it just loses some of its punch in translation. You get both versions in the package so regardless of which version you prefer, this is a film that you should add to your collection.

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