Hayao Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli is responsible for some of the most gorgeous, imaginative animated fantasy films of all time, yet many of the best Ghibli features have been small, quiet, and grounded in reality. With From Up On Poppy Hill, Miyazaki’s son Goro makes a film more in the tradition of Ghibli’s Only Yesterday and Whisper Of The Heart than the high fantasy of his disappointing 2006 debut, Tales From Earthsea. Set mostly at a seaside high school in 1963, From Up On Poppy Hill follows an earnest teenage girl named Umi (voiced by Sarah Bolger in the English-language version) as she develops a crush on a headstrong classmate, Shun (Anton Yelchin), who’s fighting to save the clubhouse he loves, which has been a part of the school for decades. Umi’s mother is studying abroad, so she helps run her family’s boarding house, and hoists naval flags in the morning to honor her father, who died when she was little. Then Shun writes a poem about the flags in the school paper, and these two kids—both mature beyond their years—bond over their mutual respect for the past.
Adapting a graphic novel by Tetsurô Sayama and Chizuru Takahashi, Goro Miyazaki and his screenwriting team (which includes his father) focus on the ramifications of a country in transition from the ancient to the modern. From Up On Poppy Hill evokes the charm of creaky old wooden floors, and shows its heroes standing up for longstanding cultural traditions in the face of a society eager to show a new face to the world for the 1964 Olympics. The film is also beautiful in a distinctly Ghibli way, distinguished by dappled light, soft pastels, and the slow-but-constant motion of a port town, with its steep cliff-set roads and ships drifting by. It’s all lovely and sweet, and while this story might’ve been just as engaging in live action, Miyazaki’s animation does clear away the extraneous detail, re-creating the world of 50 years ago and instilling it with the poignancy of a family snapshot.