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 the characters' complex emotions or the story's numerous ins and outs. But the film is perfect for the age group it depicts: older kids and teens -- and, of course, any adult who appreciates the kind of magic 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 the writer's 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, one of the many boys who 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 recognize him. He has seen this man in photographs before - it's the man his adoptive parents identified as his birth father. Could he and Umi 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 while Japan has fostered a culture of fierce integrity and accountability among its young people, it has at this time only recently recovered from nearly ten years of constant war. These conflicts devastated many families as children were orphaned and deprivation increased the rates of infant mortality. This historical dimension 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 transportive old-fashioned cell drawings can be -- particularly when they come from one of the most indisputably talented families in animation.