Yesterday, shortly after coming out of “From Up On Poppy Hill,” I tweeted that the film was cute but had a somewhat slight storyline. Then I spent a few minutes thinking about it and realized that cute and slight aren’t necessarily the right words at all. It seems Ebert is right about all the laptops: to really process a good film one needs a little time.
However, this airy animated feature may have trouble with my initial accusation as it moves forward from the festival. Goro Miyazaki’s second feature is no doubt going to be compared with his father’s work (the elder Miyazaki wrote the screenplay), and many viewers might come to this film expecting the same sort of bold magic that often characterizes Hayao’s films. Yet that wouldn’t be completely fair, and “From Up On Poppy Hill” is a delightfully subtle adolescent romance that surprises, entrances and speaks to a crucial time in Japan’s history with a great deal of compassion.
It’s 1963, Tokyo is in the high-octane rush preparing to host the Olympics, and the weather on the coast is beautiful. Umi is in her junior year of high school, with the added responsibility of running the house while her mother is in America. Her father was a ship captain who was killed during the Korean War. She meets Shun at school, the charismatic editor of the school newspaper who is leading the fight to preserve a massive, old and musty clubhouse on the school’s campus. Young love ensues, along with some teen drama.
Yet this film is governed not by the folly of adolescent attraction but rather by the ambiguous influence of history and the struggle of Japan’s youth to come to terms with the past. Miyazaki has said that he set the film in the 1960s because that is when Japan as we know it today came into being. No wonder that his heroes are teenagers, the future of the nation incarnate. These determined kids are passionate citizens, coming together to save their clubhouse and perhaps offer us a metaphor for the refurbishment of the entire country. The film showcases the spirit that helped this generation come to terms with the war wounds of the Japanese past, rebuild a community and balance this confluence of preservation and innovation. And, perhaps more impressively, it coaxes us into feeling that very same spirit. Exquisite animation and a light-hearted and jazzy musical score will transport you back to the early 60s, in the most charming way possible.