From Up on Poppy Hill
Opens Fri., March 29 at Egyptian. Not rated. 91 minutes.
If your idea of Japanese anime is space opera, cyberpunk action, and Hayao Miyazaki’s modern fairy tales, then From Up on Poppy Hill might surprise you. Produced and co-scripted by Miyazaki and directed by his son Goro Miyazaki, this is a gentle, somewhat slight story of student life and young love in early-’60s Japan. As the country looks to bury its wartime history and show the world a modern new face at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, these students are determined to hold on to the past by saving their old, neglected clubhouse (known as The Latin Quarter) from demolition.
Nothing like a cause to spark a sweet, utterly chaste high-school romance between sunny young Umi, a teenage girl who’s running her family boarding house and looking after her siblings, and student leader Shun, until unexpected complications halt their blossoming relationship.
Poppy Hill comes from a tradition of Japanese manga focused on the social and emotional lives of kids and teens, without the complications of superpowers or supernatural legacies. The film’s simple animation matches the subject. There’s none of the chaotic comedy or zippy action of Disney or Pixar here, no caricatured figures or exaggerated trials. Instead, the world is pared down to defining details, the pace slowed to appreciate the peace and stillness within the social bustle of school and home. (Umi’s mother is studying in the U.S.; her father was killed in the Korean War.) The English-dubbed cast, which includes Anton Yelchin, Gillian Anderson, Christina Hendricks, Aubrey Plaza, and Bruce Dern, is appropriately understated.
This second film by Goro Miyazaki marks an enormous evolution from his debut, the inert 2006 Tales From Earthsea. You can attribute some of that to his father’s delicate scripting and image-planning, which leaves much of the emotional drama suggested but unspoken. Goro weaves it all into a charming and oddly comforting portrait of simpler times. But behind the idealized, picaresque coastal village of Yokohama is a postwar culture of absent parents, self-sufficient kids, and adults uncomfortable acknowledging (let alone discussing) the past. No surprise that the film turns to the West for its jabs of nostalgia, from the bouncy score of swing and proto-rock to the Francophile flourishes in The Latin Quarter. Poppy Hill is more a short story than a feature, almost unbelievably optimistic, but it offers a surprising, innocent window on an era usually associated with nuclear anxieties, cultural neuroses, and juvenile delinquents.