Review: Ghibli's From Up on Poppy Hill

For much of the postwar, it seemed that all too many Japanese cultural products were attempting to forget WWII, to hide either the trauma of defeat or aspects that were inconvenient to Japan’s emerging national narrative. Now a good 65 years after the end of the war, with the real trauma having faded - or the war having too effectively been forgotten – it today seems that it is the postwar that is the object of selective remembering and forgetting. As I argued in a recent article in Japan Focus, Yamato’s gruesome depiction of the war that functions to forget the postwar, or Always: Sunset on Third Street’s remembering the postwar through rose-colored glasses, are two sides of the same cultural effort to avoid dealing with what the postwar, and its history of the Cold War, American dominance, economic growth and its cost, and political turmoil, have meant for Japan.

The new Ghibli film, From Up on Poppy Hill (Kokuriko-zaka kara コクリコ坂から), is set around the same time as Always, in the years just preceding the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. This does a better job than that film at attempting to mix its nostalgia with the effort to remember history. Yet in the end it is a quaint, earnest but middling work that still somewhat selectively forgets the past.

Scripted by Miyazaki Hayao and directed by his son Goro, the film features several parallel stories, most of which focus on issues of memory and identity. The heroine, Umi, helps manage a small rooming house in Yokohama for her busy mother, while attending a nearby high school. Having lost her sea captain father during the Korean War, she raises signal flags every morning to pray for the safe passage of all the ships in the bay below. One who sees those flags is Shun, a year ahead of her in high school, who travels to school on a tug boat. It is their blossoming love – and the problem of their parentage – that serves as the central story.

The other main story is the effort of Shun and his classmates, including eventually Umi and her friends, to preserve the school’s old clubhouse, a once fine Meiji-era Western-style mansion, from demolition. Their rallying cry, uttered by the school council president, is the argument that tearing down historical artifacts is tantamount to erasing history.

For someone who has seen Japanese cities destroy much of their post-Meiji architecture, including many splendid old movie houses, I couldn’t agree with the sentiment more. A cultural policy that preserves pre-Meiji buildings while largely ignoring more modern artifacts has long been a means to define Japaneseness through tradition and thus as transcending – and in effect irrelevant to – the modern. That renders the modern unimportant to the nation, something that can be forgotten.

It is nice to see a film trying to defend something other than “good old Japan.” But if this is one of the messages of the film, it is an inconsistent one. From Up on Poppy Hill tries to preserve another historical relic: the student protest. But Miyazaki Hayao, who had contemplated filming the original manga for years, only decided to do it now because, as he says in the press notes, enough time had passed to enable depicting school protests through nostalgic eyes. This indicates that the preservation of history here is less an encounter with what is other to the present – that which can relativize and critique our world - than a present-day invention of the past through a projection of our images on history.

This becomes evident in the Yokohama presented here. While From Up on Poppy Hill has some of the attention to detail that made Arrietty memorable (see my review), that detail does not come down to the level of history. When I taught at Yokohama National University, I took my students on historical tours of Yokohama and always reminded them that this city and its port was strongly colored by an American military presence up until at least 1970. Yet none of those details appears in the film, as America is this film’s absent other (or absent father?). Talking of preserving a Western-style house in the midst of the Cold War without mentioning America is a serious case of denial.

The US-Japan Security Treaty (Anpo) protests (the subject of Linda Hoagland's new documentary) took place only a few years before this story, but only the attentive viewer will find mention of them in the film - in the scrapbooks visible in the bookcases in the school newspaper office. Locating history then becomes a pursuit of trivia little different than finding the “Ghibli” name on one of the ships.

This is thus an antiseptic, sterilized history. It is tellin that, as the press notes declare, the film owes much of its vision of history to referencing Nikkatsu youth films from the early 1960s. Umi, it seems, is Yoshinaga Sayuri. From Up on Poppy Hill thus less preserves history as it really is, than offers an image of an image of history.

Such an overtly ideological reading of this film may rub some Ghibli fans the wrong way. Why not talk more about the animation? In some ways, this reading is necessary, given how too many readings of Miyazaki have attempted to emphasize his progressive politics, when in fact his films are more complex and contradictory – often to their benefit. But an ideological critique also seems warranted because the film emphasizes its romantic narrative over its status as animation. To put it differently, it is a story that could have as easily been told in a live action film. The fact it was not, however, is significant. True, animation does sell better in Japan, but in addition, I would argue that the narrative would have seemed less believable if its actors and locations were real. The disjuncture between its history and our reality would have been too much to sustain, so animation functions to ameliorate that gap.

Perhaps I am being harsh towards what is a reasonably pleasant, emotionally effective (on the level of Nikkatsu youth films), though ultimately undistinguished film. But choosing animation over live action was, I contend, itself an ideological choice, one that has the effect of rendering this version of history more palatable. There is a paternalist attitude in this, and I cannot but help tie it to the search for the lost father in the film, to the desire for a father figure who, like the chairman of the school board who steps in in the end, will solve the complex and contradictory nature of Japanese postwar history and identity by offering a consumable narrative backed by a strong, but benevolent authority – that is Japanese, not American.

One wonders if that father figure is what Miyazaki Hayao has become to many Japanese. (And what that means for Goro, who has yet to step out from under his father’s shadow, is another story.)

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