The news that a new Miyazaki movie has arrived on these shores is usually cause for delirium tremens in animaniacs and joy in knowledgeable children and their parents. In the case of “From Up on Poppy Hill,” though, expectations should be tempered, for it’s a Miyazaki movie quite literally in name only. While the legendary Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki co-wrote and served on the creative team for this manga-derived romantic drama, his son Goro directed. The film’s perfectly fine, but it’s not a patch on “Spirited Away,” “My Neighbor Totoro,” “Princess Mononoke,” and other Studio Ghibli classics.
Falling squarely in the shoujo genre of comics and anime aimed at teenage girls, “From Up on Poppy Hill” is set in Yokohama in 1962, as Japan is readying to host the Summer Olympics in nearby Tokyo. Modernity is just around the corner and up the bay, but not yet in the prewar buildings and social customs of the film’s homey neighborhoods. Umi — voiced by actress Sarah Bolger in a well-done English language dub overseen by Hollywood high-rollers Frank Marshall and Kathleen Kennedy — helps run her grandmother’s boardinghouse high above Yokohama Harbor. The girl’s mother (Jamie Lee Curtis) is off studying in America, and her father, a ship captain, is presumed dead in the Korean War. Every day, though, Umi raises signal flags in the hope that they will guide him home.
Most of “From Up on Poppy Hill” is set at Umi’s school and in the Latin Quarter, a tumbledown building that houses the boys’ various after-school clubs. Here the philosophy and archeology clubs — one and two members, respectively — trade barbs, and here the school newspaper is edited by the dreamy daredevil Shun (Anton Yelchin), who coaxes the shy Umi out of her shell.
The school administration wants to tear down the Latin Quarter; the boys, and then the girls, rally to save it; nothing new here. But the scenes at grandma’s boardinghouse have a charming sisterly vibe, with Umi mentored by doctor Miki (Gillian Anderson), bohemian artist Sachiko (Aubrey Plaza), and bubbly Saori (Christina Hendricks). While the scenes at school stick to Japanese gender roles of the period, home in this movie is where the empowerment is.
About two-thirds of the way in, a family secret complicates the romance between Umi and Shun, and “From Up on Poppy Hill” takes a turn for the very mildly kinky (for American audiences only, not by the baroque standards of shoujo). The tone is playful but fundamentally earnest as it honors a young girl’s growing pains. Anime fans will know what I mean when I say the movie plays like “The Girl Who Leapt Through Time” without the time travel.
What really marks “From Up on Poppy Hill” as a Ghibli project is its nostalgic reverence for a past disappearing under modernity’s bulldozer. The colorfully sleepy streets of Yokohama contrast with the gray concrete of a visit to Tokyo, and the debate over the destiny of the Latin Quarter is phrased precisely in terms of cherished tradition versus a gleaming and soulless future. “Poppy Hill” doubtless plays most strongly to Japanese audiences — especially the musical score made up of old-timey jazz and early-’60s pop that sounds like corn syrup to Western ears — but its central conflict is gentle, unyielding, and universal. Which is to say that it turns out to be a Hayao Miyazaki movie after all.