From Up on Poppy Hill, which was released in Japan in 2011, internationally beloved Studio Ghibli finally managed to bring back a director for a second time, outside of the legendary pair of Miyazaki Hayao and Takahata Isao. It is, accordingly, the best indication that we've ever had that the studio will be able to survive the retirement and/or death of those two septuagenarians.
The bad news: the director thus making his second Ghibli film is Miyazaki's son Goro, whose previous film was the 2006 Tales of Earthsea, the worst of Ghibli's 18 feature-length productions to date. And though From Up on Poppy Hill is a vast improvement over that movie, it's not terribly impressive by the standards Ghibli has set for itself, visually or as a piece of storytelling (and we cannot wholly blame Miyazaki fils for its failures in this regard: the screenplay was co-written by his esteemed father, along with Niwa Keiko). If it represents in any real way the future of the studio, that future is likely not going to be as "one of the world's preeminent animation companies", but as "that company that makes the entirely pleasant but not especially memorable family-friendly animated stories, and somebody remind me why their stuff gets theatrically-released in North America and other anime doesn't?"
The Poppy Hill of the title (which is not its Japanese name, incidentally) is found in Yokohama, overlooking the ocean, and on its slope is a boarding house that is run, in the absence of anybody else to do it, by Umi (voiced by Sarah Bolger in the dub being distributed by Gkids in the U.S.), a 16-year-old with a deceased sea captain father and a mother studying medicine in America. It's 1963, and all of Japan is busy preparing for the Tokyo Olympics opening in the summer of '64, a bold symbol of the country's readiness to discard the trappings of the past and Westernise the hell out of itself as the final step in recovering from the nightmare of World War II. Progress is also coming to Umi's high school, where an old multistory building called the Latin Quarter, where virtually all of the extra-curricular clubs are housed, is being threatened with demolition, to be replaced with a brand new state-of-the-art student center. The students themselves aren't universally keen on this notion, and largely through accident, Umi finds herself at the forefront of a committee to save the Latin Quarter, fighting alongside the school paper editor Shun (Anton Yelchin). Being as they are both teenagers, Umi and Shun rather inevitably start to fall in love with each other.
Plainly, we're a very long way from the fantasies and steampunk adventures that Studio Ghibli is chiefly associated with, but it's not like From Up on Poppy Hill represents any kind of total break with studio tradition; in fact, it reminded me rather irresistibly in some respects of Ghibli's sole telefilm, 1993's The Ocean Waves, for its prosaic high school setting if nothing else. What it has in keeping with the studio's other work is a gentle, ever-so-slightly melancholy sense of life moving along as it does, and conflict that doesn't require any malicious bad guys to nevertheless cause a great deal of grief to the characters involved. For a long time, it's a spare little slice-of-life study, and if it leans on the "progress should not mean the abandonment of the traditions that give us identity" theme heavily enough to be awfully damn annoying at places, the fact is that it is sort of a kids' movie, though that distinction is of course less useful with anime than it is in Western animation.
For a long time. At a certain point - I would not dream of spoiling it - From Up on Poppy Hill decides to have done with realism, and embark on a series of melodramatic turns involving abandoned children and foundlings and intertwining secret histories so convoluted and contrived, especially in the outright cheating done in the end, that Charles Dickens would be ashamed to put his name to it. I will not claim to be soundly horrified by the twists that the story takes, because in large part, they're irrelevant to the Latin Quarter plot which is always the film's main narrative spine. But when a story has been successfully puttering along in a nice low-key mode, heavily invested in simple humanity, and then it decides to just start dicking the audience around - I do, yes, have a problem with that, when it's done so gracelessly and to such an unclear purpose.
As far as its visuals go, the film is not maybe quite as fluid as Ghibli's lushest work, but it's not altogether clear that it was the goal: in point of fact, the uncharacteristically simple graphic style and limited framerate reminded me of anime from decades ago when anime wasn't yet classy and it largely got funneled out of Japan stealthily, dubbed and turned into children's television without announcing its lineage. Things like the '60s Astro Boy series, in production at just the time that From Up on Poppy Hill is set, and that's exactly my point. The movie reads as "cheaper" and "less sophisticated" than just about anything else in Ghibli's history, with simple lines, bright colors, and generally limited detail and motion; but for a film whose overt message is "don't forget how we did things in the past", that's perhaps not entirely accidental. I won't lie and say that this intellectual jerry-rigging means that I'm not at all disappointed that there's none of the richness and intoxicating grandeur of Ghibli's greatest work (though the backgrounds are, typically, very lovely; a bit soft and painterly rather than vibrant and involving, but very lovely - especially the bustling, lived-in Latin Quarter), because I certainly am. I'd even take the less rich and grand but still complex animation in something like The Cat Returns or The Secret World of Arrietty. Still, there's enough of a clean, bright look about From Up on Poppy Hill that it's easy on the eyes and charming, if not even a little bit revelatory.
It's a minor work. There's no argument around that. Still, it's got a good heart, and likable characters (who, unfortunately, are saddled with a clumsy script in the English dub - I pray the Japanese is not so rote and mechanical, at any rate - and vanilla voices), and no matter how ridiculous over-baked the story containing them gets - calling it out in dialogue isn't the same as making it work - it's easy to root for them. Nobody will suffer an incomplete life if they don't quite get around to seeing it, but it's a pleasant enough, airy and featherlight kind of anime that there's not much to complain about, for fans of the form.