DVD Release Date: September 3, 2013
Theatrical Release Date: March 29, 2013
Rating: PG for mild thematic elements and some incidental smoking images
Genre: Drama
Run Time: 91 min.
Director: Goro Miyazaki
Cast: Voices of Sarah Bolger, Anton Yelchin, Chris Noth, Gillian Anderson, Bruce Dern, Jamie Lee Curtis, Christina Hendrix, Aubrey Plaza, Beau Bridges, Ron Howard

Hayao Miyazaki (My Neighbor Totoro, Ponyo) has made inroads into America thanks to the advocacy of a master animator on these shores: Pixar’s John Lasseter reveres Miyazaki’s work and the films of Studio Ghibli, through which Miyazaki made his best known films.

With Miyazaki now in his 70s, the old guard of Japanese animation is starting to give way to the new, but Miyazaki’s fingerprints are evident on recent films he hasn’t directed. Studio Ghibli’s previous American release, The Secret World of Arrietty, was directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi but was adapted from Mary Norton’s book by Miyazaki himself. Now there’s From Up on Poppy Hill, the credits for which reveal that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree: this film is directed by another Miyazaki—Goro, the son of Hayao—but the results of the son’s direction are just as effective as that of his father.

We don't find any of Hayao's soot gremlins or forest spirits in Poppy Hill, however. This is a coming-of-age story aimed more at adolescents than at younger children. Umi (voice of Sarah Bolger, The Spiderwick Chronicles) lives in early 1960s Yokohama with her grandmother, sister and boarders. Her mother is away in America. Each morning she raises flags that signal the ships at sea—a gesture, we learn, that is her way of reaching out to her father, presumed dead after his ship hit a mine during the Korean War.

Umi is a lonely soul until she meets Shun (Anton Yelchin, Star Trek), editor of his school’s newspaper, and they become caught up in efforts to save a rundown facility that serves as headquarters for the philosophy, literary and chemistry clubs. The place represents, in the words of one of the students, "the flame of culture" for a country still recovering from the effects of World War II and the Korean War. On the cusp of the Tokyo Olympics, Japan is hurtling toward its future with little regard for its past. Or so some characters believe.

The tension between a forward-looking optimism and a determination to hold on to tradition marks much of the story, just as Umi’s and Shun’s family histories dominate their friendship and future prospects. When one character tells a group of onlookers, "You can’t move into the future by forgetting the past," someone in the crowd shouts back, "Anarchist!" and the event descends into a melee. When the building that houses the student clubs is to be razed, Umi reminds others that the place "makes us feel connected to our past."

The shared connection between Umi and Shun’s pasts will define the appropriateness of their relationship and will raise uncomfortable questions. At one point when Shun’s relationship with Umi seems uncertain, he exclaims, "It’s like a cheap melodrama!"