“From Up on Poppy Hill” is an inspiring coming-of-age tale directed by Gorō Miyazaki, son of the prolific Japanese animator and co-founder of Studio Ghibli, Hayao Miyazaki. “Poppy Hill” is a vast improvement from the junior Miyazaki’s directorial debut “Tales from Earthsea,” which was visually stunning, but just oh-so-plodding.
In “Poppy Hill,” the year is 1963 and the story follows Umi, a 16-year-old high school student at Konan Academy. Umi is an industrious student and daughter. Despite her young age, she manages her family’s seaside village boarding house in Yokohama.
Every morning, Umi raises maritime signal flags from their garden. With only assistance from their housekeeper, Tomoko, Umi cooks all the meals and takes care of the budget. Her siblings, Sora and Riku, live an almost carefree life, while her mother is away; studying in the United States. Their grandmother, Hana, is the stabilizing force in their lives, as their ship captain father passed away years ago.
Umi’s day is just like any other day until she discovers that in the school newspaper, someone has written an anonymous poem about her daily flag raising: “Fair girl, why do you send your thoughts to the sky?” Though she is not named in the poem, Umi knows the poem is about her.
Then, Umi’s calm life is again disturbed when classmate Shun Kazama makes a daring jump to protest the demolition of their clubhouse. “Quartier Latin” is the boys’ clubhouse where all the Konan Academy boys’ groups meet. It is dilapidated, dusty, and slated for demolition. Umi is the only student who comes to his aid. Shun and Umi become fascinated with each other almost immediately.
Quoting from the Japanese subtitles, Shun explains his defense of the Quartier Latin, “Destroy the old and you destroy our memory of the past.” Then things get a bit complex as a family mystery is unraveled.
The American dubbed audio track reveals a slightly gentler story. As is the case with most dubbed anime, the Americanized version just is not as satisfying as the Japanese audio with subtitles. The voice actors seem to come off as almost flippant at times, though they are most impressive talents: Anton Yelchin, Ron Howard, Jeff Dunham, Gillian Anderson, Chris Noth, Emily Osment, Beau Bridges, Jamie Lee Curtis, Bruce Dern, Christina Hendricks and Aubrey Plaza.
The animation is gorgeous, and all one would expect from Studio Ghibli, the purveyors of some of the best anime films in existence: “My Neighbor Totoro,” “Grave of the Fireflies,” and “Spirited Away,” just to name a few. Animators on “Poppy Hill” include directors Akihiko Yamashita (“Howl’s Moving Castle”), Atsushi Yamagata (“InuYasha: The Movie”), and Kitarō Kōsaka (“Whisper of the Heart”).
The charming music by Satoshi Takebe is a perfect fit for this film, which is based on the 1980s serialized manga written by Tetsurō Sayama and illustrated by Chizuru Takahashi. The senior Miyazaki scripted “Poppy Hill” with Keiko Niwa (“The Secret World of Arriety”). Most likely, it will be the 72 year-old Miyazako’s final contribution to film, telling “The Associated Press” recently about his retirement: “This time, I am quite serious.”
In September 2013, “From Up on Poppy Hill” was released by GKIDS, in conjunction with Cinedigm, on Blu-ray plus DVD 2-pack, DVD 2-Pack, as well as through Cable Video On Demand. It is rated PG for "mild thematic elements" and may not be suitable for young fans of "Ponyo" or "Totoro." Think of "Poppy Hill" as a bridge to Studio Ghibli's PG-13 rated "Princess Monoke."