"From Up On Poppy Hill" is such a small slice of hometown storytelling from Studio Ghibli that it's easy to dismiss it as fluffy melodrama from the "Spirited Away" and "Princess Mononoke" animation house. And yet this 1960's-set melodrama carries such deep currents of emotion and so much affection for its sweet-natured characters, that by the end I was pretty sure it would rank among my two or three favorites from the studio.
It's 1963, and in a small coastal village, the big city excitement about the Tokyo Olympics has given way to the ongoing battle by groups of the the male high school students to save their beloved (and decaying) clubhouse open. Leading the charge here is Shun (voiced by Anton Yelchin in the English dub), a serious but kind boy who joins the effort to preserve his school's past. One stunt to attract the attention of the administration brings him face-to-face with Umi (Sarah Bolger), a self-sufficient girl in a class below him.
The two meet cute, and Umi--attracted to the intensity of this boy, joins his efforts to keep the clubhouse open, when a major revelation about their shared past throws the budding romance into a state of confusion. It's an unexpectedly sharp turn into melodrama that affects both characters profoundly, and the way Shun connects the dots that leads him to this discovery is handled in such of low-key way that it's all the more affecting when he shares this knowledge with Umi.
A running theme throughout "From Up on Poppy Hill" is that try as we might, we can never truly be done with the past. It reaches out for us, even as we try to tear it down and build something new on top of it. Maybe one of the finest moments is a construction executive's (Beau Bridges) walk through the clubhouse, his own memories of his time at the school rekindled by the furious efforts of the students to keep their hangout alive. Maybe nostalgia isn't the right word for it, but there's an effort here to encourage the viewer to not abandon the past without overly-villifying those who would make way for the future.
Director Goro Miyazaki, directing his second feature after the poorly-received "Tales of Earthsea," adapts Tetsurô Sayama original story which, in other hands, could have been saccharine, playing up the drama for the sake of the big, emotional moments. It all hinges on the relationship between Shun and Umi and thankfully, Yelchin and Bolger are up to the task of giving both of these characters life in a way that's just as low-key and matter-of-fact as the material. Bolger has the trickier task, playing a character with a bubbly surface with a well of sadness underneath. You know the anime trope: she cooks and keeps house for herself with an almost supernatural grace, and yet the character is deeper than that. With her father dead at sea and mother working in the U.S., she's just barely keeping it together. God, there's a moment where she tells Shun that she believes her father sent him to look over her that's maybe one of the most wrenching moments from last year.
I feel like I keep coming back to how this could have been a disaster but "From Up on Poppy Hill" is a legitimately excellent film from Studio Ghibli, a studio known for that sort of thing and outdoing themselves this time out. While it doesn't feature any of the big, bravura animated moments of something like "Howl's Moving Castle" and its ambulatory buildings, or the massive battles of "Princess Mononoke," it more than makes up for it with a pair of wonderful leads who try to find love even if it seems like their pasts don't want them to.