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1963 Japan was a nation caught between worlds. Still recovering from the after effects of the war, a generation of adult men largely gone forever, but with the Tokyo Olympics looming as an event to usher Japan back into a prominent international position, the nation was caught between the painful past and a hopeful future with the youth of the time left to chart a course between the two.

In this between-state we meet Umi, a highschool junior living with her grandmother and two siblings in their family home - an old hospital converted to a boarding house to make ends meet, with all of the tenants female. Old before her time in certain ways, Umi overseas the business and cooks for the residents of the home, the business thriving under her focused care. But as competent as she may be she is still a teenaged girl, one who lost her father in the Korean War, and one who vents the pain of her loss by hoisting messages coded in nautical flags to him ever morning.

And then there is Shun, adopted into a working class family when his father, too, passed during the war, Shun is a firebrand in the making, a passionate intellectual who edits and prints the high school paper while waging a fight to preserve the school's aging clubhouse - a labyrinthine old building slated to be destroyed to make way for a more modern structure in advance of the Olympics. It's a fight he believes he will lose but is worth fighting anyway because how can you have a meaningful future if you lose your connections to the past?

A beautifully artful, wistfully nostalgic coming of age romance, From Up On Poppy Hill is the second feature film directed by Goro Miyazaki, son of the legendary Hayao Miyazaki. As was the case with his first effort Poppy Hill will suffer to a certain degree thanks to the family name - the expectations brought on by being a Miyazaki are simply enormous - but this should find a greater degree of praise.

The sort of simple, naturalistic story that Studio Ghibli hasn't really tackled since Whispers Of The Heart, From Up On Poppy Hill features all the gorgeous artwork that you would expect from a Studio Ghibli film. The sheer craftsmanship on display here is astounding and it is balanced with a careful attention to detail and character that grants as much importance to the quiet moments as it does to any of the plot events. It's an approach that has served Ghibli well in the past and it continues to deliver impressive results here, though Poppy Hill - like Whispers Of The Heart - seems destined to be viewed as a more secondary entry in a canon that includes classics like Spirited Away and My Neighbor Totoro.

The reasons for the somewhat reduced status are two.

First, this is simply a smaller story. There are no big action set pieces and elements of the fantastic at all. It is a very simple story about a girl and a boy finding each other while they try to sort out lingering issues of their individual pasts and their collective future. And no matter how well told that sort of story is it will never draw the gasps of wonder that Ghibli did when they had a pair of young girls befriend the mythical forest spirit that is now the company logo.

Second, the film splits time between two stories - Umi in the boarding house and the school group as a whole rallying to save the clubhouse - that never really seem to mesh into a satisfying whole. It almost feels as though there are two movies competing within Poppy Hill and while both are strong on their own terms - the world of the clubhouse stands quite well with any of the more fantastical creations of the studio and I'd love to see a film set entirely within its walls - they fail to cohere and push in a single direction.

Weaknesses aside, From Up On Poppy Hill is a significant step forward for Goro Miyazaki as a director and a strong indication that he is finding his own voice and style. And, bluntly, even 'minor' work from Studio Ghibli is a world better than major works from almost any other animation house in the world. Poppy Hill is very well worth a visit.

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