The latest effort from Japan’s Studio Ghibli (the team that brought us Spirited Away and Ponyo) is a heartfelt coming-of-age drama called From Up on Poppy Hill. A tender and often playful story with no fantasy elements at all, Poppy Hill isn’t a movie for small kids, who wouldn’t be able to follow its emotional narrative or subtle but sometimes complex ins and outs. But the film is perfect for the age group it depicts: older kids and teens -- and, of course, any adult who knows the kind of nuance and beauty that Studio Ghibli is capable of producing.
The story concerns a 16-year-old girl named Umi, who lives in the port city of Yokohama in 1964 Japan. Umi works hard before and after school to help her grandmother run the boarding house she and her younger sister Sora share with her while their mother finishes her medical degree in America, and though they lost their father during the Korean War, the strong women who board at their modest house provide warmth and support as the girls navigate their teen years. However, still grieving in her own quiet way, Umi continues to raise the signal flags outside of their house every day, wishing her father “safe voyages” even though the message is, at this point, something of a spiritual gesture.
One day, Umi reads an anonymous poem in the school newspaper describing a tremendous love and affection for a girl who raises signal flags every day. Could it be from a secret admirer? She soon finds herself drawn to a classmate named Shun, who is one of the many boys who enthusiastically run a wide variety of academic activities at the huge, run-down clubhouse next door to the school. Their connection is so strong that Umi suspects he wrote the poem. But just as their magical spark promises to heal the wound still left from the loss of her father, Shun sees a photo of Umi’s dad and is shocked to discover that it’s the same picture depicting his birth father that his adoptive parents showed him. Could they be brother and sister? Does this puzzling development explain their connection or negate it?
This plot twist sounds a little tawdry, but it’s not. It’s made abundantly clear in the story that Japan, despite fostering a culture of such fierce integrity and accountability among its young people, has only recently recovered from being hobbled by nearly ten years of war. The conflicts devastated many families as children were orphaned and deprivation increased the rates of infant mortality. This lends the film a heartening undercurrent about the importance of honoring the good things from our past even when we wish to leave the bad things behind, and allows the story to play out without any threat of it feeling like a soap opera.
The movie was co-written by Ghibli genius Hayao Miyazaki, but it was directed by his son Goro -- who cut his teeth directing an animated adaptation of the Earthsea fantasy novels as his first assignment for Ghibli. And rest assured, the younger Miyazaki has clearly earned his stars, as Poppy Hill offers just the same intimate, ultimately life-affirming kind of storytelling we’ve come to expect from the family name. The movie is also absolutely beautiful, depicting every scene with a gorgeous attention to light and texture that reminds you just how magical old-fashioned cell drawings can be -- particularly when they come from one of the most indisputably talented families in animation. leave a comment --Cammila Collar