For any moviegoer who enjoys the manifold and ever-evolving art of animation, it’s always occasion to celebrate when a new Miyazaki film comes out. Or perhaps I should say “a new Studio Ghibli film,” since the Japanese directing dynasty has moved on a generation: Hayao Miyazaki, the most famous auteur in the anime genre and responsible for such modern classics as My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki’s Delivery Service, Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle and Ponyo, has semi-retired.
For the 2011 Ghibli production currently making its way slowly through American cinemas, From up on Poppy Hill, he has ceded the director’s chair to his son Goro Miyazaki. Hayao does get a screenwriter credit, though, having worked with Keiko Niwa on this adaptation of a 1980 manga or graphic novel titled Kokuriko-zaka Kara (From Coquelicot Hill), illustrated by Chizuru Takahashi and written by Tetsuro Sayama.
Like The Secret Life of Arrietty, the previous Studio Ghibli product seen on these shores, From up on Poppy Hill is a dazzling visual feast, once you dig a little deeper than the big-eyed, flat-faced characters that are anime’s stylistic calling card. Arrietty was set in a country house surrounded by gorgeous gardens, as seen from the perspective of tiny people called Borrowers, so its look largely recalled diaphanous Impressionist watercolors.
Poppy Hill is more of a period piece, set in the seaside city of Yokohama just before the 1964 Tokyo Olympics; casualties of World War II and the Korean War are crucial components of its storyline. So it has a different look: less precious, a little more gritty, but awash in maritime sunlight and constantly surprising the eye with the changes of perspective afforded by the city’s precipitous changes of terrain. The characters are constantly trudging or cycling uphill or down, and the scenery, both natural and human-made, unfolds differently around every bend in the road.
The narrative is not quite so twisty. The heroine, Umi (voiced by Sarah Bolger), lives in a boardinghouse, a former hospital owned by her grandmother. Her mother is a doctor studying in the U.S. at the time of the story. Umi has a lot of responsibility, having to administer the household budget and get up to make breakfast for her younger siblings, grandmother and all the boarders before dashing off to high school. But each morning she also makes time to raise signal flags reading “I pray for safe voyages” on a flagpole overlooking the harbor in tribute to her father, a boat captain killed by a mine at sea during the Korean War.
A beautiful painting executed by one of the boarders alerts Umi that a mysterious tugboat that passes each morning, outside her line of vision, flies answering flags. Shun (Anton Yelchin), the son of the tugboat captain, is a classmate of Umi’s and editor of the school newspaper, which has published an anonymous poem about the “fair girl” who raises signal flags each day up on the hill.
Shun leaps, literally, into the forefront of Umi’s consciousness when a dilapidated historic building next to the high school that houses all its clubs, called the Latin Quarter, is slated for demolition by the school’s clueless principal. Shun is one of a group of boys active in the clubs who decide to mount a campaign to save it. The building is a filthy, cluttered warren, but Umi recruits a gang of girls with mops to spearhead a massive sprucing-up effort. Still the principal does not relent, and Umi, Shun and student council president Shirō are delegated to storm the Tokyo business headquarters of the school’s board president and plead for him to visit the refurbished Latin Quarter personally.
Meanwhile, and predictably enough, Umi and Shun have been falling shyly in love — until it turns out that both own copies of an old photograph of three sailors that suggests that they were fathered by the same man. Teen heartbreak ensues, until a complicated tale of postwar baby-swapping to keep Shun from being sent to an orphanage is unraveled, and everyone lives happily ever after, more or less.
That denouement will likely come as a spoiler only to the youngest potential audience members, who might not quickly see where all this is going. I reveal it merely to dispel the alarming specter of incestuous longing that might lead some parents to think this movie inappropriate for the small fry; it’s not. From up on Poppy Hill is a sweet moral tale about admirable young people in a society recovering from the ravages of war that should appeal to viewers of all ages — if for no other reason than its amazing, evocative visual detail that truly captures a specific place in a specific time. It’s lovely to look at; catch it when and where you can.