Fair warning provided here: No demons, walking castles, or magical transformations (beyond the dauntless power of teenage love) were used in the making of the latest Studio Ghibli animated film, From Up on Poppy Hill. It’s a noble experiment in a way: the powers of gorgeous animation applied with quiet drama to a story of commonplace heroism, about a fatherless girl who meets the boy of her dreams and must overcome an unexpected taboo. (There isn’t even a ghost in the attic. There might not be an attic.) Yet this second film directed by Hayao Miyazaki’s son Goro — whose first outing, Tales from Earthsea, was mostly a flop — will probably only really please die-hard anime fans. It’s beautiful and paced like a stately dream of nostalgia, complete with beautiful renderings of early 1960s Yokohama. In other words, it’s American box-office poison.
But that doesn’t mean you should skip the film entirely. Opening with an almost numbed-stiff pacing, we watch the unfolding of a typical day for Umi, who has to not only get herself off to school but also feed and herd her grandmother, slow-witted siblings, and hotel boarders. We quickly learn that Umi is standing in the shoes of her mother, who is off in America, honing her doctoring skills. As the film progresses and Umi meets the daredevil intellectual Shun and becomes drawn into “The Latin Quarter,” a three-story clubhouse for passionate teens, the style of the animation becomes more horizontal and sensuous. (The cooking scenes were among my favorite.) By the time the film reaches its sentimental conclusion in dusky-lit Tokyo, the film has become a glorious canvas for Studio Ghibli’s artists, who manage to halo the slightly predictable story with a mist of pretty indulgences.
Even without the Master Hayao directing, Ghibli remains a kind of universal standard for old-school (drawn, two-dimensional, what-have-you) animation. Big bodies of water used to be what the Disney team loved animating; they gave it a transcendent poetry in movies like Pinocchio. In Ponyo and Poppy, Ghibli makes the seacoast clearly stand for the beginning and ends of life. This film, about first love lost and found, may not have magic, but it weaves a quiet spell.