I'm a fan of young adult films done right, and these two are the perfect examples of why I love both YA movies and animation. I've been a huge fan of anime for years, but have just recently discovered the magic that is Studio Ghibli.
Their first film that I watched was Ponyo, and loved it despite the fantastical bits. When I felt a bit mellow and would like something heartwarming, simple without the supernatural elements, I went for either these two gems or Makoto Shinkai's 5 CM per second. I wouldn't compare Hayao Miyazaki with Makoto Shinkai, because they are as different as night and day, but that does not mean I don't enjoy their films equally.
The plot (From Up on Poppy Hill): Umi is the caretaker of a boarding house overlooking the port, and she raises flags as messages to seamen to stay safe, as once taught by her sailor father who died at the sea. One day she meets Shun, a member of the school newspaper club, and together with their friends, they try to save their old clubhouse from being demolished by the school chairman.
The plot (Whisper of the Heart): Shizuku is a bookworm, and she's surprised to find that most of the books she checks out has already been read by another student named Seiji. Both of them meet and grow close, and she's left wondering about her dream when he has already gone to pursue his as a violin maker. She decides to test her talent in writing a story based on the Baron, a cat figurine she finds in Seiji's grandfather's antique shop.
From Up on Poppy Hill and Whisper of the Heart are so heartbreakingly honest and real they just tug at your heartstrings. Both have unusually unique family background and a little side story about family life, also a simple teen romance with signs of a budding first love. There are bits of Japanese traditions and lives everywhere, it's so wonderful to watch. The colors are bright and vivid, the artwork clean and lovely, the voices done right, with suitable accompanying music. Both are rather slow paced, but anime about everyday life usually does that - take things slowly, and you don't realize you've fallen in love with it until the credits roll.
Both also have strong, mature teen characters. Both Umi and Shizuku are your average teenager, but as Umi is reliable, sensible and responsible, and Shizuku are often sullen, sometimes lazy about homework and chores, they are at core the teenagers we all once were, or are. They have strong minds and express their opinions well, the communications with their peers, family members and loved ones are not one-sided that might express misunderstanding, but very much real and interactive. They say what they feel, and they fight for what they believe is important. I admire the relationships in both films, and am very pleasantly surprised when Shizuku's parents allow her to do what she thinks is right, even if that means temporarily abandoning her studies and possibly not continuing school.
I might have slightly a bit more fondness for From Up on Poppy Hill because of the school spirit and the strong characters I find in both Umi and Shun. Everything's just done in the right proportions, and I can't help but wish there are more films such as this one. The stories are meaningful, even though they were made decades earlier, they still carry relevance in today's era.
I'm currently marathoning my way through the rest of Studio Ghibli films, but these two are definitely top of my list.