Heartwarming, hand-drawn and heady, "From Up on Poppy Hill" marks the first collaboration between Japan's reigning overlord of animé, Hayao Miyazaki ("Spirited Away"), and his son, Goro, who directed this postwar period piece. A production of the fabled Ghibli Studios ("Princess Mononoke"), it evokes its place and time -- Yokohama, 1963 -- with a seductive mix of the somber and buoyant. Japan is still in postwar mode (there's a generation of men simply missing from the Yokohama landscape); young love is in bud. The contrast -- a sense of loss, and a bouncing soundtrack of lounge-lizard jazz-pop -- makes "Poppy Hill" both genuinely emotional and blithely engaging.
Near the home where the beautiful and disarmingly sensible Umi (voice of Sarah Bolger) runs a rooming house with her grandmother, is the bustling school where Shun (Anton Yelchin) and his cronies are trying to save the period mansion/frat house where they live. The tensions -- preserving the past, getting over the war, a nation preparing for the '64 Tokyo Olympics -- are a chaotic backdrop to the romance that erupts between Umi and Shun, which becomes complicated by questions of birth, which might have been answered by Umi's father, except he's been lost at sea.
The look of the film is intoxicating; there's nothing quite as cheesy as bad animation, but the Miyazakis do not produce bad animation. They create a world of images in which emotions naturally flourish and characters are immediately familiar (see the opening scene at breakfast, which Umi dutifully cooks). There's a lot of chatter, especially among the wiseguy college students who run various clubs and societies out of the rambling mansion ("The crux of the matter is how we can make archaeology cool." "We can't. ...") and the issues discussed start to overwhelm the simple, and simply astounding, beauty of the Miyazakis' art. Still, few viewers, whether they're animé fans or not, would not be won over by the film's dramatic sincerity and visual grace.
PLOT In 1963, Japan is looking at the future, while Umi and Shun are looking at love. All, however, may not quite be what it seems. RATING PG-13 (adult content, incidental smoking)
BOTTOM LINE Lovely, buoyant, moving animation from Japan's venerable master, Hayao Miyazaki.