Set in 1960s Japan as the country prepares to host the 18th summer Olympics, From Up on Poppy Hill is a gentle, meditative animated feature from Studio Ghibli, the animation house founded by Hayao Miyazaki. The master cartoonist wrote the screenplay and oversaw the project. His son, Goro Miyazaki, directs.

It should come as no surprise to anyone who follows the Miyazakis - Kiki's Delivery Service, My Neighbor Totoro, Spirited Away - that the central character in this playfully wistful (or wistfully playful) story is a strong-willed girl. Umi (voiced by Sarah Bolger) is 16, living in a boardinghouse run by her grandmother. Umi buys food and does chores, and attends a nearby high school, valiantly trying to keep up with all her work. Every day, she raises the signal flags on a pole overlooking Yokohama Harbor - her father died at sea, and her mother is in America, studying. The flags are there to greet the ships. And they a way of remembering her father.

At school, she meets Shun (Anton Yelchin), an editor of the school paper, and one of a group of nerdy boys who live in a rundown clubhouse. School officials want to tear down the dilapidated pile of wood and make way for a new, modern building, so Shun and his fellow "Latin Quarter" residents start a boisterous campaign to preserve the ramshackle edifice. And Umi helps to clean up the place.

That is, at its heart, what From Up on Poppty Hill is about: the battle between old and new, traditional ways and what stands for progress. And in the wisdom of this artfully rendered film, Umi and Shun - and the viewer - come to learn that the past and the future should go hand in hand, that the best way to move forward is to reflect, and respect, what came before.

All that, and beautifully drawn animation, too.

From Up on Poppy Hill *** (out of four stars)

Directed by Goro Miyazaki. With the voices of Sarah Bolger and Anton Yelchin. Distributed by Gkids. Running time: 1 hour, 31 mins.

Parents' guide: PG (adult themes).

Playing at: Ritz Bourse.EndText

Contact Steven Rea at 215-854-5629, srea@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @Steven_Rea. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at www.philly.com/onmovies.