By Bill Desowitz | Thompson on Hollywood March 28, 2013 at 5:27PM
"From Up on Poppy Hill," the latest hand-drawn Studio Ghibli animated feature, might have failed to grab an Oscar nomination last year, but it's an exquisite and engaging movie about young love and preserving the past. Gkids is expanding the film theatrically next month. (See "From Up on Poppy Hill" trailer below.)
Written by the legendary Hayao Miyazaki ("Spirited Away") and directed by Goro Miyazaki, "Poppy Hill" marks the first collaboration between father and son after they had a brief falling out when Goro decided to helm "Earthsea" and Hayao didn't believe he was ready. However, the elder master had no objections to his son directing a more grounded and cross-generational story of Japan in transition as it prepares for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.
While less fantastical than the typical Miyazaki movie, "Poppy Hill" is no less elegiac about honoring beauty, friendship, and tradition. The quaint Yokohama seaside town circa 1963 is the backdrop of a high school couple's budding romance. The misty harbor, sun-drenched gardens, friendly shops and markets stand in glorious contrast to the changing times around them: hellish traffic, unstoppable industrialization, and ugly pollution. Thus, it's as much about Japan's loss of innocence as theirs.
As Hayao notes in his treatment, "People had no money but they had hope." The movie takes place on top of a hill where development has not yet encroached. Umi, an 11th grader, runs a boarding house in a grand old mansion and continues to hoist signal flags everyday in honor of her late father, who died at sea. She meets Shun, the editor of the school paper, and they immediately become kindred spirits. Together they attempt to save a dilapidated Meiji-era clubhouse from demolition. At the same time, they try to solve a bizarre mystery surrounding their births-- that threatens their romance.
In true Miyazaki fashion, the inner and outer worlds are in conflict, but there's nothing fantastical here -- "Poppy Hill" evokes an actual time and place like no other Ghibli movie. And when Umi and Shun rush down the hill on his bike, it's as thrilling as any of his famous flying scenes.
But even though "Poppy Hill" is more dramatically straightforward than other Miyazaki movies, its use of animation is no less detailed, and the period pop music (particularly “Sukiyaki") provides an upbeat mood. The clubhouse, for example, is so richly textured and crammed with mounds of debris, and, yet, when cleaned up it stands as a metaphor for everything worth preserving here.
Once again, thanks to the Miyazakis and the dedicated Ghibli animators, we're reminded of the graphic power and painterly beauty of hand-drawn animation in "Poppy Hill." There's nothing quite like it in depicting period and atmosphere so impressionistically and palpably.
Oscar-winning sound designer Gary Rydstrom directed the English language version from a script adaptation by Karey Kirkpatrick. Frank Marshall and Kathleen Kennedy executive produced. Voice talent includes Sarah Bolger (Umi) and Anton Yelchin (Shun), Gillian Anderson, Beau Bridges, Jamie Lee Curtis, Bruce Dern, Christina Hendricks, Ron Howard, Chris Noth, and Aubrey Plaza.