A version of this review appears in Friday’s Weekend Life section of The Oklahoman.
“From Up on Poppy Hill”
It may not light up the screen with the fantastical magic of previous Studio Ghibli films “Ponyo” or “My Neighbor Totoro,” but the period drama “From Up on Poppy Hill” glows with an ethereal tenderness.
The latest animated feature from the legendary Japanese studio to be released in North America, the coming-of-age tale is set in 1963 Yokohama as the bustling seaside town tries to shake off the lingering horrors of war and prepare to host the 1964 Olympics. Co-written by Hayao Miyazaki (“Spirited Away”), the 72-year-old Oscar-winning filmmaker who earlier this week announced his retirement, and directed by his son and heir apparent Goro Miyazaki, 46, the wistfully lovely hand-drawn film is based on the manga by Chizuru Takahashi and Tetsuro Sayama.
The story centers on serious 16-year-old Umi (voiced by Sarah Bolger in the English dubbed version), who must care for her younger siblings as well as the female lodgers in her grandmother’s (Gillian Anderson) boarding house while her mother (Jamie Lee Curtis) is studying in America. Umi’s father died when his ship went down in the Korean War, and she raises maritime flags in his honor every morning outside her cozy home on Poppy Hill.
When her signal flags become the subject of a mysterious poem in the school newspaper, Umi crosses paths with Shun (Anton Yelchin), the paper’s charismatic editor. Along with student council president Shiro (Charlie Saxton), Shun is leading the campaign to stop the school board from demolishing the charmingly ramshackle clubhouse in favor of a spanking new building. The ever-practical Umi recommends they give the dusty old place a good cleaning if they want their campaign to succeed and even recruits other female students to help with the refurbishment.
Romance blooms between Umi and Shun as they polish and scrub, but an unexpected family connection soon complicates the joys of first love. The rapturous score by Satoshi Takebe and delicately beautiful animation are perfectly matched with the poignant, low-key fable about love, hope and grief.
Bruce Dern, Beau Bridges and Chris Noth lend gravitas to the story in brief roles, while Duncan native Ron Howard and Aubrey Plaza contribute some welcome humor.
As a Japanese press conference and post-screening speech from the elder Miyazaki reveal, the film was in production when a 2011 earthquake ravaged Japan, and the circumstances seemingly gave the movie even more emotional resonance. Other bonus materials include feature-length storyboards, an interview with Goro Miyazaki, Yokohama travelogue, English voice cast featurette, Japanese and U.S. trailers and a music video for the theme song, “Summer of Farewells.”