“From Up on Poppy Hill” Movie Review

“From Up on Poppy Hill” is the new family-friendly film from Oscar-winning director Hayao Miyazaki (“Spirited Away”) and son Goro Miyazaki. The animated feature film is a beautifully hand-drawn story of two high school kids falling in love in a Japanese seaside town during the 1960s while the country was rebuilding after World War II. The appeal of a universal love story set during this fascinating time in history is compelling enough to entertain viewers of all ages.

Shun and Umi, the movie’s hero and heroine respectively, are growing up in Yokohama in 1963. Their budding romance grows in a small town while the rest of the country is focused on the upcoming 1964 Olympics to be held in Tokyo. Miyazaki creates a nostalgic feel that audiences will relate to as if they too grew up in the hilly town. Everything in the film rings true, from the details of the architecture and vehicles of the time to the intense feelings of the young characters.

Umi is a high school junior watching over her two younger siblings while her mother is absent. The resourceful young woman must be two parents for her siblings as their father died during the Korean War. Their mother is studying aboard, leaving Umi to watch over the kids and pitch in at the boarding house run by her grandmother. Fans of “The Tudors” may recognize the voice of Irish actress Sarah Bolger in the English version. Masami Nagasawa does the Japanese voice acting for Umi.

The audience meets the film’s hero Shun when Umi answers a question he placed in the school’s newspaper. Every morning, Umi runs two signal flags up a flagpole, an action that catches Shun’s attention. He asks who the girl is sending “thoughts to the sky,” and eventually Umi goes to the newspaper office to answer in person. The two recognize their instant chemistry, but in the polite and modest tone of the film take their time exploring their attraction. When an obstacle gets in the way of their love, the young couple must deal with the consequences of a buried secret that threatens to force them apart.

Hayao Miyazaki brings some of the storytelling magic viewers saw in “Spirited Away” to this new film co-written with Keiko Niwa. Goro Miyazaki directs, not his Oscar-winning father, but you can see influences in Goro Miyazaki’s style. “From Up on Poppy Hill” draws viewers into the beautifully constructed world Miyazaki creates, a rare ability that his father also possesses. Viewers won’t see the element of fantasy the elder Miyazaki is known for, but they will enjoy how deeply they are brought into the realistic story of Shun and Umi.

The brilliance of the film lies in the theme of change as the country’s past and future clash, while the past creates an obstacle for the kids’ future together. Japan is moving into a new era as it recovers from World War II and invites the world to visit for the Olympics, yet the director’s desire to hold onto some of Japan’s traditions and past is also clearly shown. This theme is most exemplified in a bold action by Shun, who jumps off the roof of a Meiji-era building in protest of the school’s desire to tear it down and replace it with a modern construction. Shun is punished for his action, but Umi respects it, and it is part of what draws them to each other. Shun’s efforts to save the building echo the director’s message that the past must be respected and remembered. Miyazaki’s passion and brilliance succeed in convincing the audience. The character of Shun is voiced by Anton Yelchin in the English version. Junichi Okada performs the Japanese voice acting.

The mood of the film is one of optimism and hope, which is enhanced by the film’s music. The pop music is sweet and matches the innocence of the main characters, but like the story itself, the music contains important messages delivered in an entertaining medium. The soundtrack includes a classic hit from 1963, “Sukiyaki,” a decision that is not surprising considering the meticulous efforts of the director to stay true to the film’s timeframe.

Also true to that point in history is the conflict that was felt everywhere in 1963. Shun and Umi experience conflict in their relationship and conflict in their fight to prevent the destruction of the building known as the Latin Quarter. The determination and bravery the children show may inspire many young viewers.

From Up on Poppy Hill” is the first collaboration for father and son, but it feels like the two are longtime partners in filmmaking.