The most popular Studio Ghibli films, the ones that worldwide audiences most readily associate with the name, are the ones that combine a human foundation with a fantastical setting, like “Spirited Away,” “Princess Mononoke,” “Castle in the Sky,” and “Howl’s Moving Castle.” Each of these showcases the incredible imagination of director Hayao Miyazaki in vivid visual fashion. “From Up On Poppy Hill,” directed by his son Goro Miyazaki, is grounded in reality and Japanese history instead. But it’s filled with the emotional clarity and insight that made Studio Ghibli famous.
“From Up On Poppy Hill” takes place in 1963 in Japan, a period in which the country’s rapid economic and technological progress seemed to threaten its sense of cultural identity. This tension shapes the characters and narrative of “Poppy Hill;” all of them are coping with the realities of a modernized future while trying to respect the histories of their families and their country.
Past tragedies affect characters societally and personally. The Korean War’s impact on two teenagers’ families informs their relationship in the present, while their student union works to prevent the demolition of an old clubhouse in order to preserve the school’s history. This keeps the story immediate and personal despite its broad range, and it handles sensitive, affecting material with nuance and care.
“Poppy Hill” doesn’t contain any of the supernatural element that defined Hayao Miyazaki’s work, but it’s easily among the most beautiful animated films in recent memory. It fills each moment with exacting detail, celebrating the mundane and the routine with gorgeous illustration. This dovetails with the film’s understated approach to developing character and narrative.
It’s subtle and honest and endearing in all the ways audiences have come to expect from a Studio Ghibli film, but it’s bold in its realistic approach to design and setting. Much like the characters in his film, Goro Miyazaki has found a way to honor the past while forging a new path.