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The problem, I suppose, is that Poppy Hill doesn't sound all that interesting on paper. Set in early-60s Tokyo, it's about an adolescent girl who befriends a literature-loving boy at her high school. Their relationship is chaste, nothing especially traumatic happens to either of them, and the film is so specific in its focus that it doesn't really succeed as a historical portrait. Yet the movie is so wise and humane about the experience of growing up that its low-key developments register as major incidents. Yasujiro Ozu's late films (e.g., Ohayo, Late Autumn) seem an appropriate point of reference here.
When I write that nothing especially traumatic happens in the film, I mean that as a compliment. So many movies define coming of age in negative terms, based on first exposure to tragedy or the ugliness of adult life. (Even family-friendly films on the subject, like the recent Bless Me, Ultima, advance this idea.) Without coming off as saccharine, Poppy Hill is almost exclusively positive about the process. The heroine, Shun, grows up by taking on responsibilities one wouldn't impose on a child: helping to manage her household while her mother studies abroad, defending her school's humanities society against the administration's plan to demolish it, learning about her roots. These tasks strengthen her connection to other people and provide her with a sense of independence, both of which are essential to becoming an adult.
It's hard to dramatize this particular aspect of growing up; we tend to recognize its significance only after it's happened. It speaks to the subtlety of Ghibli's art—as well as the universality of its appeal—that the studio would devote an entire movie to such a thing.