There are not many children’s movies that let the discomfiting possibilities of “From Up On Poppy Hill” linger as long as that new film does, and that is one of the movie’s great strengths. The animated feature is directed by Goro Miyazaki and written with his father Hayao, who has produced a greater body of children’s entertainment than anyone in recent memory, rivaling and perhaps even surpassing Walt Disney.
Thus it’s probably good that Goro’s movie is smaller, quieter, and less concerned with the supernatural than his father’s films—it’s allowed to be subtler and probe deeper and by the end all questions of comparison are moot. Goro’s preoccupations are much different than Hayao’s, which is perhaps the reason his first film, “Tales from Earthsea,” was so bad. “From Up on Poppy Hill” follows a girl named Umi who, in the absence of either parent (her father is dead and her mother is in America), must keep a household of several siblings in order, cooking and cleaning and all but holding down a salaried job while she attends to her schoolwork in the very brief meantime. Her life has little margin for error, and her crush on a classmate is more of a nuisance than anything else.
This movie is about Japan in the 1960’s, as it was wrestling with what kind of a nation it wanted to become in the aftermath of the devastating second world war. Hayao’s own movies are filled with period detail, but rarely do they directly address history—”My Neighbor Totoro” is set in 1950’s Japan, but that very fact is difficult to glean without repeated viewings. Goro’s movie is about how his characters—and by extension, his nation—deals with the past. The easiest choice, he suggests, is to move forward, but the correct choice is to learn and metabolize as much as possible in order to plan a move forward. In knowledge, Miyazaki argues, everything—love, community, family—becomes possible to a greater degree than we might otherwise believe.
From up on Poppy Hill, he contends, you can see for years.