Goro Miyazaki had a lot to live up to for his sophomore film. Not only is he the son of Studio Ghibli's famed Oscar-winning director Hayao Miyazaki, one of the greatest directors in all of animation, but also that his directorial debut at Studio Ghibli, "Tales From Earthsea" was such a colossal misfire of a film that left a really bad dent in Ghibli's otherwise flawless filmography. I was very disappointed and bored by the film myself, though I do put most of the blame on Ghibli's higher-ups rather than him since he should not have directed a film of that size and scale. So it felt very refreshing that Goro's second film at the studio, "From Up on Poppy Hill" was a very good film to watch. It's certainly not a great film by any means and I wouldn't call it one of the studio's best works due to some rather clunky elements, but it was a sweet little film to watch that I did enjoy.
In the months of 1963 in Yokohama, a young teenage girl named Umi (Masami Nagasawa) has been helping run a boarding house and take care of her siblings and grandmother while her mother is studying in the United States while raising signal flags in the yard to the ships in the sea. One day she happens to discover a poem about her flags written in the school's newspaper and that the president of the paper named Shun (Junichi Okada) might've had a hand in putting it in. She goes to meet him at an old building where the high school clubs are held that's being torn down and quickly becomes friends with him while also being enchanted by the old building and wanting it saved along with the other students. From there, Umi and Shun help try to renovate the building before the school votes for its impending demolition while the two eventually discover that their pasts might be connected.
While this might not be one of Studio Ghibli's best films, I still did find myself enjoying this film and I found it a solid effort from director Goro Miyazaki, especially after his very bad debut film. It has the simplicity that's found in other slice of life Ghibli works as well as the sweetness that reminded me a lot of "Whisper of the Heart". I think seeing Goro take on a smaller scale story was absolutely the right decision that helped benefit this film in the long run. One of the biggest problems I had with "Tales from Earthsea" is that the story and themes were too complex and massive for him to be helming and often at times it felt rather underbaked and sometimes even boring. This story in this film though was riveting from start to finish mainly because Hayao Miyazaki did help write it. We've seen the story of a bunch of students wanting to save an old building from being demolished again and again as well as themes on how old things can be better than new things, but it worked for me mainly because of the nostalgic setting and how it ties into history. The film is set a year before Tokyo hosts the 1964 Summer Olympics and the country is trying to fully pick itself up after the devastation of World War II and become the giant economic force we know today so it makes sense why the governors are so determined to demolish the building and replace it with a new one to show the country's growth. I was really invested in the scenes where the students are repairing the building which were often very funny and charming which includes a quirky montage set beautifully to the music of Satoshi Takebe. Even a lot of the quieter moments were nice, particularly a scene where Umi and Shun bike down the hills of Yokohama to the market. The only thing that does hamper the plot for me is a subplot involving Umi and Shun's pasts and how they might be connected. I understand the purpose of wanting there to be drama between the two, but I found the way the subplot went to be rather uncomfortable and offputting and I wish that both Miyazaki's and Ghibli found a different approach on where to take the characters.
As far as the animation goes, it's very lovely. The colors are very lively and gorgeous as they usually are for Ghibli and I also really loved how some of the flashbacks and dream sequences were animated in the film. There's a scene where Umi has a dream about both her mother and late father returning home and the whole scene is presented with the rooms being filled with overwhelming light which I found a clever touch. I also found a lot of the character animation pretty funny with how expressive it got, particularly during a very heated debate among the students where they were arguing over the status of the building and their reactions to what students were saying. It was quite funny. As far as the characters go, I did find them pretty likable. Umi was a sweet protagonist and I admired how she can handle the house while her mother is away and take care of things. It made her quite strong and responsible and helped make her dedication to saving the building very believable. I also found Shun and his friend Shirō (Shunsuke Kazama) likable as well with their dedication to the building and had some funny moments, particularly in the beginning where Shun decides to jump off the roof in protest. I don't have much else to say about the other characters mainly because they didn't really have a lot of personality or screentime, but I can't say that I disliked any one of them.
In all, "From Up on Poppy Hill" is a nice and simple film. The story has a lovely calm feel despite a clunky subplot, the animation was gorgeous and had some funny quirks, and the characters were all likable even if some weren't as fleshed as they could've been. This is another good film from Studio Ghibli and I'm glad to see Goro Miyazaki finally get the chance to direct something good. It may not be up there as one of their best, but it's still a good little film that can proudly stand on its own.