From the studio that brought us classics like Spirited Away and Howl's Moving Castle, this animated drama feels unusually low-key and realistic. But while the lack of fantastical elements leaves it somewhat dry, as if it should really be a live-action movie, the animation is still a lavishly detailed feast for the eyes.
It's set in 1963 Japan, where orphaned teen Umi (Bolger) lives with her grandmother (Hendricks) atop a hill overlooking a fishing village. She raises flags every morning as a signal her fisherman father, who died in the Korean War, then heads to school where the topic on everyone's lips is the impending demolition of the ramshackle clubhouse. As the nation prepares for the Tokyo 1964 Olympics, old buildings like this must go, but the students band together to protect it, and Umi teams up with student journalist Shun (Yelchin) to clean up the building and make a plea to the corporate boss (Bridges). Meanwhile, Shun is having a personal crisis: as he begins to fall for Umi, he starts to suspect that they have the same father.
The film never really weaves these two plot strands together, so as Umi and Shun try to save the clubhouse and work out their parentage, each storyline feels like a distraction from the other. But they both raise intriguing questions about the past, present and future in a nation still recovering from WWII. And the beautifully rendered backgrounds bring the period to life with artful detail. On the other hand, the characters are more basic anime shapes, inexpressive and a bit stiff, which makes it difficult to identify with them even when their stories turn extremely emotional.
Director Miyazaki (son of the great Hayao, who cowrote this script) has made a movie that feels almost like one of those French films full of politically active students who never stop talking. The film builds strong momentum as it heads into its intense final act, even if the ending feels tidy and abrupt. Fortunately, the dialog is packed with interesting observations, creating cheeky and engaging characters while touching on bigger issues about the generational fallout of war.