Studio Ghibli has been known for its amazing imagery and intricate storytelling, incorporating everything from the supernatural (Kiki's Delivery Service), to the futuristically natural (Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind), to the anachronistically wonderful (Castle in the Sky). However, every once in a while they do something a little different. Similar in tone and approach as Only Yesterday, From Up on Poppy Hill is a rarity in the the world of animated films. It attempts to balance a coming-of-age romance story, with the pivotal self discovery of our two protagonists.
Set in Japan the year before the '64 Tokyo Olympics, the story follows 16 year old Umi Matsusaki who lives in a boarding house in Port of Yokohoma. Her mother is away in the United States studying medicine, so she is left alone to care for the boarders, her grandmother and her two younger siblings. Among her many chores, Umi raises the flags signalling "I pray for safe voyages", in honour of her fallen father.
One day at school, Umi's friends hand her the school newspaper, where a love poem has been dedicated to her, this jump-starts her curiosity for the author. This curiosity leads her to the "Latin Quarters" club which houses many groups including the journalism club, of which fellow schoolmate Shun Kazama is president. Instead of discovering who wrote the poem, Umi ends up getting pulled into saving the "Latin Quarter" from demolition with Shun and the rest of the club inhabitants. Through the process of trying to save the "Latin Quarter", Umi begins to admire Shun much more than anticipated during their initial meeting.
The story of Umi and Shun is told very boldly and beautifully, one of the things that Studio Ghibli has been able to accomplish time and time again. All of the characters are well rounded and serve a purpose whether that's just to provide comedic relief, or to expose something special in our protagonists. The witticism of the characters and moments are deeply enjoyable, and the story is beautiful and endearing with a more untraditional adult plot/soap opera twist.
The part where the film falls short is it's pacing. The first 2/3rds of the movie are very well thought out and paced classically, much in the vein of Only Yesterday; the animators take their time with transitions, and scenery, and nothing is rushed. I find this type of meditative animation to be a relief from all of the fast-cutting and hand-held camera work we get from the mass of modern filmmakers, whether it be live action or animation. However, when we get to the final 1/3rd of the film, it seems as if there were too many details to go over without enough time or contemplation given to to how best to solve the story. I will say, however, that even with this pacing/storytelling flaw, From Up on Poppy Hill is still a wonderful movie to be enjoyed by those who can keep an open mind.
Studio Ghibli has always made wonderful choices when it comes to the soundtracks of their animated films. There haven't been too many times where I have stopped in my tracks to wonder, "Why did they choose that?". This film is one exception, though not in a completely negative fashion. The film is scored mostly with what sounds and feels like a French accordion. French because it gives these lovely romantic flares in very appropriate moments in the film. The only reason it took me out of the experience is because the sound was so classically French, and yet the film is set in Japan. In most other Studio Ghibli films, they will either give you a fictitious location, or something unnamed. Even with all of this though, the musical choices were somehow appropriate, and charming.
The film is very enjoyable as the animation is still superb in classic Studio Ghibli fashion, and the characters are well thought out. Where it falls short is the execution of the final 1/3rd of the story, perhaps having too many things to go over, and the lead voice actor for Umi (for the English dub that is).