A sweet and tender collaboration between Goro Miyazaki (director) and his legendary father Hayao (one of the screenwriters), From Up on Poppy Hill stands apart from the family’s filmography in its emphasis on realism. Yet the historical setting and human characters hardly preclude the usual sense of Miyazaki wonder.
Here, the magic is found in the everyday details of domestic life. We come to know the main character, a teen girl named Umi circa 1964 Yokohama, by way of her many chores. Living in her grandmother’s boarding house with her younger sister and brother (their father has died and their mother is studying abroad), Umi is responsible for the house’s groceries, meals and laundry – on top of her own schoolwork. And so there are lovely images of pots boiling on the stove, vegetables being chopped and rice being scooped out of bins. (Not since Ratatouille has an animated film made me so hungry.)
The magic is found in the everyday details of domestic life.
At school, Umi has – to her own surprise – begun to consider the possibility of maybe being interested in boys, especially a spirited daredevil named Shun. It’s this cautious, dawning adolescence that the movie captures with rare delicacy (the source material for the film is a Japanese comic from the 1980s). The tentative courtship between these two, in which they share interests, family details and future dreams, is uncommonly charming. Most movies involving teen romance think it’s all about sexual activity; From Up on Poppy Hill understands and evokes the roots of friendship that (ideally) come first.
One of the things that connects Umi and Shun is an event from their family histories. In revealing that secret, the movie does veer toward soap opera (I believe Shun himself calls it “cheap melodrama”). Yet this development also echoes one of the picture’s central themes: that growing up means coming to terms with your past. Progress doesn’t require abandoning all that has come before. Emotionally epic, From Up on Poppy Hill depicts this struggle as it’s happening both on a macro scale – in preparation for the 1964 Yokohama Olympics, city officials are tearing down many old buildings, including the clubhouse where Shun and his pals hang out – and within Umi’s heart.