I saw "Kokurikosaka Kara" (aka "From Up On Poppy Hill") last night in Shinjuku. I didn't rush out to see it when it first came out because, well, it's Goro Miyazaki. I didn't care for "Tales From Earthsea" and I really didn't care for the way he drug his family's dirty laundry out into the open during interviews at that time.
My lack of interest thawed a bit when I learned that he and his father were working together at least somewhat on this one; I hoped it was a sign that there's been some reconciliation. Also, a TV reporter described the film as a sort of animated "Always: Evening on Third Avenue," and that was one of my favorite live action films to come out over here since I've been in Japan.
Anyway, I liked the movie a lot. "Always" is a movie steeped in nostalgia for 1950's Japan. "Poppy Hill" however, is a movie that could have easily been shot in live-action during 1963, which is when it is set. It didn't strike me as a nostalgia piece so much as a recreation of the real thing...like an animated version of a lost film from the period. Its story is small-scale and simple, and positive about its characters, who are likable and refreshingly direct about their feelings. People say what they need to say when they should say it instead of being too shy to admit anything. Also, both of the leads struck me as people of very admirable character.
The animation is nice to look at, although it does look to me like quality control suffered a bit in some scenes where there are lots of passersby on the screen at once -- their faces sometimes look blander than we're probably used to from Ghibli. Some supporting characters are played surprisingly broadly for a Ghibli film (some of them reminded me of the sort of students that used to turn up in Mamoru Oshii's "Urusei Yatsura"-era comedies...which were of course characatures of guys he went to college with in the 1960s). But what the hey -- 1960s Japanese movies were full of such characters too.
The soundtrack uses a lot of good music from the time period, and will hopefully provide American audiences with their best chance in nearly 50 years to hear an accurately-translated version of "Hitoribotchi no Yoru" (made and remade in the USA as "Sukiyaki," with English lyrics that have nothing whatsoever to do with the original). This song was recently voted #1 in a television poll of "songs that encourage Japan," and is one that anyone from Japan is familiar with.
After the movie ended, I felt good. I love how the Japanese love their past, and can make movies about the 50's and 60's that celebrate those years instead of trying to criticise, deconstruct, or flat-out rip them apart. I went for a walk in the city with a smile on my face and the song still playing in my mind. A fine evening's entertainment, especially if you like classic Japanese movies of the 1950's and 1960's.