The thought of the Oscar-winning filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki, founder of Japan’s renowned Studio Ghibli (Spirited Away, Ponyo, Princess Mononoke), teaming up with his son Goro on a movie sends your expectations sky-high. What surreal creations and magical universes will two generations of Miyazakis be able to conjure up?
The surprising answer is: zero. From Up on Poppy Hill, written by the elder Miyazaki and directed by his son, is a departure for Ghibli — an emotionally nuanced, nostalgic look at the past that is grounded in everyday reality but retains the humor and delight that are part of the studio’s trademark.
The year is 1963, and in the seaside town of Yokohama, everyone is preparing to put on a shiny face to show the world during the upcoming 1964 Tokyo Olympics. “Out with the old, in with the new” is the mantra sweeping the country. But when plans call to demolish an old, dusty building that houses all the academic clubs of their high school, two students — Umi (voiced by Sarah Bolger) and Shun (Anton Yelchin) — hatch a plan to save the beloved structure. In the process, they fall in love.
Although the story is simple enough to have been filmed in live action (and will disappoint viewers searching for a typical fix of Ghibli fantasia), From Up on Poppy Hill is often indescribably beautiful. The endangered clubhouse, with its dense clutter and crowded halls and maze of stairways, looks like something that might have come from Howl’s Moving Castle. The blooming romance between Umi and Shun is sweet and tender and moving, even though the most intimate thing they share is a bicycle ride.
The film’s beautiful pen-and-ink animation is supplemented by some stunning watercolor vistas of puffy clouds, blooming gardens and boats at sea. The mid-1960s period feel is made palpable by the movie’s use of light and music (the song Sukiyaki, which in 1963 became the only Japanese-language song ever to hit No. 1 in the United States, is used prominently). From Up on Poppy Hill is a simple tale about a country trying to honor its past while embracing its future, seen through the eyes of schoolchildren. But the picture unfolds on such a small and intimate scale - with endearing protagonists who are dealing with the consequences of war - that it will enchant any viewer, regardless of cultural lines.
Voices: Sarah Bolger, Anton Yelchin, Aubrey Plaza, Gillian Anderson, Chris Noth, Christina Hendricks, Beau Bridges, Jamie Lee Curtis.
Director: Goro Miyazaki.
Screenwriter: Hayao Miyazaki.
Producer: Geoffrey Wexler.
A GKIDS release release. Running time: 91 minutes. No offensive material. Screens at 11 a.m. Saturday and Sunday at Coral Gables Art Cinema.