Yesterday, I rewatched one of my absolute favorite movies. The English title works out to be From Up on Poppy Hill, one of the less popular releases from Japanese animation powerhouse, Studio Ghibli. (In Japanese, it’s コクリコ坂から, so it’s not a reference to drugs, just the color, by the way.) Since it’s something I indulge myself and watch from time to time, you may have heard me talk about before but I’ve never gone so far as to write about either why it’s great to watch or why it’s particularly meaningful to me. Now, though, is my chance — the place I’m currently staying is mid-hurricane as ice and rain fall and the wind attempts to tear the windows out of this room so I’m not going anywhere and neither is anyone else, so I’m just realistically trying to distract myself from the fact that my neighbors, as per usual, have been playing music that is both loud and awful since late morning.
First, the simple story. I should probably mention that this is actually the story so if you’re the kind of person who doesn’t like to know the plot before watching something, go watch it now and come back. If you’re like me and prefer to know what’s going to happen, you’re all good to keep going.
The whole thing takes place just before the ‘64 Olympics (which happened to be held in Tokyo) but the point of the timing is to set the story in the postwar period when Japan was just starting to seriously come out of the disaster that was imposed on the country by the war, the defeat and the postwar shortages. Life was still pretty simple at that point and what we think of as modern urban Japanese culture hadn’t really started to happen but there was finally enough to eat and it was time to show of cultural pride for the first time in a couple of decades. Most of the action takes place (action being a bit of a relative term since it’s mostly a love story and it is, thankfully, without any of the graphic “action” often associated with what I tend to loosely refer to as fuckdramas) in Yokohama (south of Tokyo if you’re a geographic neophyte).
Umi and Shun, two high school students (he’s older than she is by a year so they’re not in the same class) are approaching life in very different ways. She’s quiet and reserved, putting nearly all her effort into running her house (complete with boarders) while her mother is in America to study while he’s in charge of the school newspaper. After being demonstrated the morning routine of synchronized breakfast that I know I would have no shot at imitating even being double her age, we get to follow Umi to school where she discovers not only that she has a secret admirer but he’s declared his appreciation for her in the newspaper — in a poem (see why I like this movie yet?). It’s subtle and obvious at the same time.
Since Umi’s sailor father disappeared, presumed dead, during a supply run during the Korean War, she has taken her young childhood learnings of signal flag reading and raised the flags every day to guide his spirit home — and perhaps his living body, although that’s becoming increasingly unlikely, given that the Korean War was about ten years earlier. From his father’s tugboat, Shun has watched her raise the flags every morning in a demonstration of love for her father and has fallen in love with her from a distance. His poem is an ode to the flag-faithful girl.
The school, swept up in the modernization craze that is sweeping the country at that point with a brutal hyperactivity, is planning to tear down the old (obviously nineteenth-century) clubhouse and build a new facility for the students. While most of them don’t seem to care, there’s a significant membership in the clubs that inhabit the building and they have significant history with the place. It is, admittedly, a shithole, probably needing to be torn down. In a stunt to draw attention to the campaign to save the clubhouse (in an obvious reference to fraternities in university being “Greek”, the place happens to be called the “Latin Quarter”), Shun jumps off the roof into a miniature pond, surfacing right in front of Umi who, after their eyes meet for a moment of shared introspection, summarily drops him back into the water. Their relationship has begun, I might say, with a splash.
There are a few subplots that I’m not going to get into but there’s a party at Umi’s house and she and Shun disappear into the house to wander, ending up in her mother’s study looking at photographs, where Shun discovers to his astonishment that Umi’s father happens also to be his — his biological father, given that he was adopted. When he reveals this to Umi, the shock is deep but they agree they can be nothing more than best friends, given the awkwardness, not to mention the genetic lack of wisdom, of pursuing penetrative partnership with one’s siblings.
They take a bit of a side trip from their relationship to fight for the clubhouse in Tokyo but the real surprise comes from the happy couple’s meeting with the only surviving member of the trio of sailors of which their fathers happen to be the other two, who relates to them the real story of Shun’s adoption — not altogether unusual for postwar Japan but decidedly complex by modern standards where few families have been completely wiped out by nuclear attack and almost nobody is being killed in wars, at least proportionally speaking.
As with most Japanese movies, almost every scene is a mixture of emotional happiness and overwhelming sadness. Longing meets with calm logic and love is backed against loss. Daily life is lived against the context of multiple wars and even breakfast comes with the necessity of combined families and international students. If you have caught the western disease of thinking that animated films are made for children, I invite you to return to your world of Disney and lock yourself in the castle. (As much as I love Disney movies, by the way, I do believe the fact that they are aimed at the lucrative children’s market has rather biased western audiences raised on those kid-friendly masterpieces of anti-theater against the much more dramatic and grown-up animation from Japan — I’d say of the east but really we’re just talking about Japanese animation mostly and what’s now starting to come out of China and South Korea is generally following the Japanese mold.)
So that’s the plot. And it’s not exactly simplistic but it doesn’t sound necessarily like the most interesting story ever. Of course, I haven’t mentioned that the dialog is better written than most modern film would lead you to expect and the soundtrack is absolutely fantastic. These are two things that you’d expect from something directed by Miyazaki (yes, that dude, the only Japanese filmmaker you’ve got a good shot of having heard of unless you were born yesterday and the first thing you watched produced on the other side of the Pacific was Your Name). I was, unlike most other people, underwhelmed by The Wind Rises and some other Ghibli productions. This one made up for it for me. The entire score is original but has the feel of contemporary emotion mixed with a traditional vibe. There’s no Imperial March in here but neither is there reason for such a thing and I could listen to the soundtrack straight through pretty much any time and come out with a smile on my face — believe me, it’s not a bad way to spend an hour if you’re heading somewhere and just want to keep your eyes closed and chill all the way there.
But there’s depth in them-there hills, I promise. More than you might see at first glance. First, the whole movie is a commentary on the resilience of a society. It’s less than twenty years after an overwhelming and brutal defeat that America would never have inflicted on a western nation — Japan was recovering from invasion, sweeping and unrelieved shortages to the extent that nearly every inhabitant was suffering from severe, late-stage malnutrition, widespread radiation and a long-term occupation force that wasn’t exactly friendly until it became clear that the country held a strategically-important location in the nascent Cold War. But unlike Europe, still reeling from the war, much of it pretending to be victorious in a war that they should never have fought in the first place, Japan was ready to host the Olympic games (which they did in rather spectacular fashion — search 1964 Olympics on YouTube and you’ll see what I mean) and was rebuilding with a construction boom that was quickly leaving the United States and Europe in its wake. The rise of the Asian economic miracle that was postwar Japan had already showed its first signs of coming into being. I’m not going to talk about the effects of the Keiretsu-dominated economy and such or the positive impact of a centralized MITI strategy but suffice it to say, things were looking up for the first time in awhile and the islands were rising like the sun that gave rise to both name and flag.
More specifically, though, it addresses two particular themes — adoption and childhood freedom, things that you can probably guess are highly important to me. Being adopted, any time the subject is treated in popular media is an interesting experience. It’s usually discussed as abandonment or lack of love. So generally there’s an annoyance factor that the public starts to see adoption more and more along those lines, which is certainly not what it is for most people. It’s not that for me, as you’ve probably noticed from the other times I’ve discussed my particular situation. In the case of Shun, he was adopted twice in short order, both into loving families that wanted nothing more than to give him the life they’d give their own children — of which he was suddenly one, no more or less, simply their own. Shun’s father even goes so far as to shut down any discussion of “real fathers” and simply states that he’s Shun’s dad and that’s all there is to it, a father like any other. I could imagine those words coming out of my dad’s mouth, too, and he’d be just as correct. (Yo, Dad, shout out with much love, by the way.)
So this is a clear demonstration of what adoption can really be. It’s not just a second chance for an abandoned child. It’s a family that doesn’t see the adopted child as different from the biologically-linked propagation method of family expansion against which it is usually judged. Families are about how you are raised and love is based on familiarity and safety, comfort and teaching, support and expressions of interconnectedness. Blood isn’t thicker than anything. Love is. Your parents are the ones who hold you when you cry and pick you up when you fall down. I’ve never seen that story told so well on the big or small screen.
The other piece of the puzzle that strikes me as important — and what turns this into something other than a set piece investigation into an adopted love story — is childhood freedom. We can achieve almost anything at any age. We don’t have to be twenty-five before we can do something with our lives worth doing. In this story, high school students turn a building that should have long since been condemned into a beautiful historically-restored masterpiece of construction, change the minds of corporate boards and pretty much self-organize as a micro-culture of their own. That’s not the most significant part of the story, though.
In an age where children are shut off from the rest of society for their own protection, this is a demonstration of how things should be. These are people in secondary school who not only run their households as needed but travel to Tokyo, jump off buildings, light fires, publish newspapers. This is not a nod to health-and-safety regulations. It’s a blatant outcry against them. Not to say that we don’t need government protections, just that we don’t need special ones for young adults. The characters in this story aren’t cotton-wool-wrapped innocents. They’re adults in everything but times around the sun. It’s a story of expectations — if you demand performance, you’ll get it. We in the west have grown to suspect that young people are incompetent and have built a society and education system that rewards mediocrity and ineptitude, reducing everyone to the lowest common denominator in the name of equal opportunity, simply meaning that nobody has any opportunity to do anything other than live a life of quiet desperation unless they’re a moron. This is another pathway, one of expecting adult behavior, intelligent and logical thought, not pandering to behavioral problems or silliness but expecting from secondary students what we expect from doctoral students in the west — and even then, with vastly less whining and trips to the bar.
I always have difficulty answering the question what’s your favorite movie? I usually offer to give a list of my top ten and I’m not sure what the order would be. But in any list of those — or a list of things I think you and anyone else should watch — this would be on there without doubt. While watching the same movie day after day would quickly get boring, I’ve probably seen this one as many times as any other I’ve watched and I can honestly say I can’t see myself ever growing tired of it.
By the way, while you’re at it, if your Japanese isn’t up to it, there’s a complete audio track in English if your streaming provider supports it and if you’re working on your language skills (oh how I wish my Japanese was fluent!), there are some well-executed subtitles.
You may be a big action fan or into comedy or something, the first of which I can relate to (that new Star Wars? wow — just wow) and the second I have no comprehension of at all. But if you expect animation to be either child-focused (darling, it’s better down where it’s wetter — take it from me) or a subway-friendly replacement for soft porn (I’m looking at you, Fairy Tail, with an emphasis on the tail), this will, unless your preferred footwear is tabi, knock your socks far enough off you’ll likely be socially prepared for sandals.