Of the many wonderful qualities associated with the films of Studio Ghibli — the Japanese animation house co-founded by Hiyao Miyazaki, the visionary director of My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki's Delivery Service and Spirited Away — serenity may be the most key. Ghibli productions offer the stirring adventures and magical creatures of their American counterparts, and often operate by a wondrously mysterious internal logic, but they do so without feeling compelled to grab a young audience by the lapels. Even the name "Ghibli," derived from an Arabic word for the Mediterranean wind, evokes the gentle breeze that seems to guide their movies to port.
From Up on Poppy Hill, the second feature by Miyazaki's son, Goro Miyazaki — the first was the poorly received 2006 Ursula K. Le Guin adaptation Tales from Earthsea -- takes place in a seaside village that may as well be called Ghiblitown. Based on the graphic novel by Chizuru Takahashi and Tetsuro Sayama, the film is broadly accessible but makes no immediate appeals to children — no talking animals, no chase scenes or slapstick, nothing supernatural or even defying physics.
In fact, it could be a live-action drama without the staging's being altered in the least. Yet those gorgeous, hand-drawn images bring lightness and grace to a story that might seem drab and pedestrian in the real world.
Opening in 1963, the year before the Olympic Games in Tokyo, From Up on Poppy Hill captures a period in which the country was eager to slough off the past and present the world with a bright, modern, revitalized image. But the past still weighs heavy on Umi (voiced by Sarah Bolger), a high-school student who may be a member of the postwar generation, but who raises flags for her father each morning as a gesture of hope for his safe return. With his ship considered lost in the Korean War, Umi lives with her grandmother in a boarding house overlooking the sea, assuming responsibilities beyond what might normally be expected of a teenage girl.
A wallflower at school, Umi nonetheless attracts the attention of Shun (voiced by Anton Yelchin), a brash and popular roustabout who harbors a secret crush on her. Shun brings Umi into the "Latin Quarter," a dilapidated mansion that serves as a lively clubhouse for the students (otherwise all boys) interested in chemistry, drama, philosophy, journalism and other pursuits. With administrators eager to demolish the old building in the spirit of the new, Umi and Shun rally to keep the wrecking ball from dropping while embarking on a relationship with roots in a shared past.
Co-scripted by Hiyao Miyazaki, From Up on Poppy Hill makes its themes far too explicit. Barely a minute has passed before Umi says, via voiceover, "Ever since the wars, it seems the whole country is eager to get rid of the old and make way for the new, but some of us aren't so ready to let go of the past." There are more elegant ways to situate the audience in time and place, especially with that entire Latin Quarter subplot serving as a strong metaphor for a country that needn't entirely abandon the old in a quest for rebirth.
But it's the warm tenor of the film that ultimately rescues it. Miyazaki renders the crises of Umi's life with great feeling but without melodrama, which honors her spirit of self-reliance and her mature disposition. Her losses and sacrifices are substantial — as the country's have been — but From Up on Poppy Hill makes her a proud stand-in for a generation that's trying to broker a peaceful reconciliation between a salvageable past and a promising future. She bears the pressure beautifully.