Originally Written and posted elsewhere February 14, 2022
I recently rewatched From Up on Poppy Hill (Kokuriko-zaka kara), an animated 2011 Studio Ghibli film directed by Goro Miyazaki and adapted from the manga by his father, the master himself, Hayao Miyazaki. It had been a long time, but I found that it was just as good as it was when I first saw it close to ten years ago. I wondered what others thought of this carefully crafted portrait of adolescence in early 1960’s Japan, so I looked for some critical essays and was surprised to find a number of reviews that ranged from relatively neutral to straight up negative. Some reviewers stated that the parallel plot lines of the Latin Quarter clubhouse alongside the romance between Umi and Shun didn’t merge well enough to make it a cohesive story. Others felt that the use of the Latin Quarter as a symbol for rapid change in postwar Japan was too heavy handed and thus made for poor storytelling. Many fixated on the subject of incest, making it clear just how awkward it was for them to watch Umi and Shun continue to experience feelings for each other after discovering that they might be siblings. I found myself disagreeing with these reviewers, so I am writing an analysis of my own. To me, the parallel storylines tie beautifully together the generational impact of war and the sacrifices that come with rebuilding and rebranding a nation in its wake, especially during a time of globalization. Japan and what it represents is about to be brought to center stage for the world to see as the nation reconfigures its way of life to prepare for the 1964 Olympics. The film raises questions about how historical debris that remains after years of war continues to inform national and individual identity even while efforts are underway to clean-up evidence of its existence. From Up on Poppy Hill is an examination of the shifting identities of a nation and its people as seen through a thoughtful, tender, and subtle exploration of the adolescent experience during this pivotal time.
The Latin Quarter
The threat of the demolition of the Latin Quarter is probably the most obvious metaphor for the rapid change that Japan was undergoing during this time. Advertisements seen throughout the film for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics with slogans like, “Let's make the Tokyo Olympics a success in the beautiful capital,” contain messages that reflect a national shift from communal wartime efforts to collaborative goals focused around democracy and capitalism. The cleanup for the olympic event involved modernization through the active erasure of wartime history in an attempt to rebrand Japan as modern, democratic, and capitalist; a nation reborn in the image of great democracies like the United States (its former occupier), in time to debut on the world stage. In the middle of this national clean-up and at the center of this film is the “Quartier Latin,” or the Latin Quarter, an old high school building housing a number of student-run extracurricular clubs that is scheduled for demolition. In a scene where the future of the Latin Quarter is the subject of a student debate, Shun states that Japan is building a new society on the ruins of the old; a poignant, if not explicit, message about the importance of the preservation of history, a subject that carries extra weight for the main characters in this film, both because of their attachment to the Latin Quarter, and because the truth of their origins are buried deep within the ruins of Japan’s wartime past. This generation is at the center of a cultural shift, as they are the first born after a period of wars that dominated the majority of the first half of the century, the first born after the emperor of Japan had renounced his divinity, and is probably, most remarkably, the generation born during the Allied Occupation of Japan by the United States. The Latin Quarter exemplifies this ideological shift with its crumbling infrastructure that is being held up by remnants from the past: old furnishings, boxes of student records, and memorabilia left behind by the generations that came before.
Within the Latin Quarter the students pursue interests largely inspired by traditions of the humanities, traditions that look to define who we are as people, societies, cultures, and nations. This was not only a time of change, it was a time when the Japanese were asking: who are we, and who do we want to become? Within this space, the students are able to practice adult roles without the pressures of the adult world by acting as amateur astronomers, philosophers, journalists, and more. It is interesting to consider that the age and dilapidated state of the Latin Quarter is both the reason for its scheduled demolition and why the students are able to occupy it without interference from adults. In a sense, the state of the building is a metaphor for its occupants, a generation hovering between a childhood marked by war and a not yet determined adulthood. This is a generation for whom the future is cloudy. This is apparent when Umi asks Shun about his plans after high school and Shun replies that he doesn’t know, but concedes that he will probably go to a public university, while Umi gives a similarly vague answer: she is interested in becoming a doctor, but she isn’t sure yet. Like the future of the Latin Quarter building, the world of adulthood seems precarious. The older folks who came through the wartime era seem to know a lot about tearing things down and building them back up again, and the students in the Latin Quarter aren’t looking to these generations for definition, to those marred by war. They are creating their own world on their terms by utilizing what is already available to them, looking to the great thinkers and to history, to traditions that have transcended the limitations of capitalist modernity, and they look within themselves to establish definition rooted in truth that will enable them to navigate an ever changing world.
There is a scene that highlights the pre and postwar generational divide quite brilliantly where Umi, Shun, and Shiro visit Chairman Tokumaru about the Latin Quarter. The boys approach the Chairman using their best adult impersonations by making stiff, polite, and declarative statements as if to appeal to his authority, while Umi, in her usual way, is quiet until she is addressed directly and answers his questions with polite but natural speech. The Chairman takes to her immediately, and he asks what her father does for work. She explains that her father’s ship sank in the Korean war and an image of a ship hitting a mine and sinking followed by Umi’s family portraits from before and after the loss of her father are shown. The Chairman bows his head in a moment of thoughtful repose; the pain of war is shared across all social markers and is something that they all have in common. The Chairman comes across as a sympathetic authority figure. With a poster for the 1964 Olympics in view on the wall behind him, he exclaims “Escape!” excitedly in reaction to the boys confessing that they had skipped school to see him. There is a sense that he is saying it is so good to be young, but we know that Umi has lost her father to war, which has robbed her of a real childhood, and the Chairman, quite possibly, had no childhood to speak of, having grown up in a time of war himself. What the chairman finds in meeting with the students is not a sense of nostalgia for or a reflection of his own experience of adolescence; it is the hope for an experience of real adolescence, one that is free from the sacrifices of war and the efforts of its recovery. This hope leads to the realization that children should not be burdened with matters of the nation and is a pivotal moment that changes his position on demolishing the Latin Quarter.
Umi: On Women in Japan
Umi’s story is interesting in that it also reflects the changing roles of women during the 1960’s. Umi is the caretaker and manager of a boarding house that she operates from within her grandmother’s home while her mother works abroad as a university professor. While not unheard of, a woman as head of household and main breadwinner was pretty unusual at the time, but given that Umi’s mother is a widow, this is not too surprising. What is surprising, however, is that she began this career path while her husband was still alive and pursued her education while she was pregnant with Umi. The role of women in the 1960’s had changed significantly after the abolishment of the legal agricultural family system during the early 1950’s, which shifted the legal structure of households and effectively dismantled the multi-generational home while making men and women legal equals in the eyes of the law. This means that women had begun to join the workforce, and while the majority of women focused on marriage and on raising children, many kept jobs on the side that brought in extra income. Career oriented mothers were unusual, however, and the fact that Umi’s mother works at a university abroad could be the result of there being a very low glass ceiling for working women in Japan at that time.
In her mother’s absence, Umi embraces her role as eldest daughter by stepping up to become the care-taker for her younger siblings, and she also contributes to the household by running it as a boarding house. Her grandmother seems concerned for her early in the film when she asks Umi if she can handle all of this, an interaction that lets the viewer know that this is a path that Umi has chosen for herself. The dynamic within the boarding house positions Umi as an organized, thoughtful, bright, and selfless person; in just about every scene Umi gets to work while everyone else plays. She asks her younger sisters for help (in the presence of their grandmother, no less) and they groan and whine, “But the television program just started,” and Umi heads off to complete the task. When the boarders come home from work, Umi has meals prepared for them. When they break out the whiskey, Umi springs to action, “I’ll get some crackers.” She is actively in a service role, and is rarely on the receiving end, which probably makes the gestures of kindness that she receives from Shun seem so much bigger, even when it is something as small as offering her a croquet. When Umi first visits the Latin Quarter it is apparent that she is more mature than the excitable boys that she encounters on her initial walk through; her quiet and straightforward manner has an air of polite authority, and by suggesting that they clean the place up to make it more palatable to the adults who hold its future in their hands, it could be read that Umi walks a line between adolescence and adulthood that the others have not yet begun to navigate. Through suggestion alone, she spearheads organizing efforts to save the building, a role that she fills quite naturally. It is interesting to consider that the role that Umi plays within the Latin Quarter could indicate the origins of her becoming the boarding house manager; it is possible that running a business through the house could have been an attempt to save a sinking ship, a metaphor we see throughout the film.
Umi: On Adolescent Identity
Acting simultaneously as adolescent and adult means that Umi does not truly embody either role; she exists in between, in a sort of limbo. This middle state from which Umi toggles between adolescence and adulthood is interesting to consider in relation to her connection with Shun, because just as it gets started, it is also put on hold. The state of limbo describes the way in which both progress and the healing of the nation were stalled in transition at the time, frozen between a wartime past and the dream of capitalism. In a way, Umi’s story could reflect the way in which those of the postwar generation who had to fill in for parents that were either lost to war or lost to the obligations of postwar society were asked to sacrifice their own development in the interest of the developing nation. Umi has been running interference for “mines” ever since her father’s passing; when she sees a catastrophe coming, whether it be at home or at school, Umi gets to work. The nation may not be at war anymore, but there is cleaning up to do, there are mines to diffuse, and here we have here a generation that is filling in while their parents are off rebuilding the nation. There is an interesting scene that I feel illustrates the effects of this parent child role reversal where Umi goes to sleep in a depressed state after learning that Shun might be her brother and dreams that she is a child crying and wandering alone in an open space when she hears her mother’s voice calling her name from a distance. The scene then transitions to her bedroom where she wakes up and heads to the kitchen to make breakfast for the household, but she finds her mother there, already cooking. Surprised, she asks her mother when she returned from abroad, and her mother responds, “I’ve been here all along.” Then she hears her father calling from outside, and she finds him there raising the flags, “I’ll be home for a long time,” he says, and Umi jumps into his arms. In the dream we see her crying and alone, and then we find her parents appear and they are doing what parents generally do: her mother is cooking and her father is raising his flags, but the reality is that they are filling in for Umi by doing what she does, day in and day out, without them. The burden of maintaining the family and running interference has been her sole responsibility for some time now and hearing her parents say that they are there supporting her while taking back their responsibilities in the dream gives her permission to prioritize herself, maybe for the first time ever. Her father tells her that he has been there all along while raising the flags, and this signifies to Umi that Shun came to her through the messages displayed on the flags that he has been there helping her raise; Shun has come to her with his blessing. She is then able to confess to Shun that she loves him regardless of whether or not they share a father; this isn’t a mine that she is being asked to diffuse, she simply has to be true to herself and have faith that this truth will manifest however it is meant to.
On Traditional Family Roles and on why the Incest
And now onto the part that many critics seem both confused and excited by: incest. The relationship between Umi and Shun couldn’t really be seen as indecent in any way, unless you think that walking someone to and from school every day is something to blush about, but still, the possibility of them being siblings seemed to ruffle a few feathers, so I think that it is worth looking at the subject of incest in the context of the time so that we can understand why Ghibli didn’t just take this out of the story (as one reviewer suggested). Before the Allied Occupation of Japan after WWII, incest was not taboo. In fact, it was not unusual up through the first half of the twentieth century and is still not illegal today (though it is seriously frowned upon). In the prewar period incestual unions might be formed to keep wealth within families, which should sound familiar because this was also practiced among royalty in certain European countries, including Great Britain. There were also situations where incestual marriage was instituted in the interest of maintaining the household. It was not unheard of for a father to marry his daughter after the death of his wife in order to elevate her status within the household. The role of the wife of the head of household had a number of important responsibilities, including management of household duties, caring for elders, and coordination of other household members, and marriage would legally elevate the position of the daughter, who is already familiar with the household tasks and the responsibilities associated with the position, from that of a lower status. This would allow her to remain in the home instead of having her married off into another household economy, which might make sense in situations where the father cannot find a new wife to take this position (or when introducing a stranger into the home is not ideal; having a daughter care for grandparents might be more appealing than introducing a complete stranger). Arrangments like these were probably not as much about romance and sex as they were about economics and business, as was often the case with marriage in general during that time. It would be interesting to really dive into how marriage in Japan during the prewar period was usually an arranged economic agreement, and how the agricultural household was focused on the creation and maintenance of a family economy, and how this explains the ways in which marriage served a very different purpose in Japan than it did in the West at that time, but I am not going to go into the history of the Japanese family in depth here right now. The topic of incest in Japan isn’t something that I have expertise in, and I am not making a statement about whether it is right or wrong, but I believe that just knowing that the Japanese have historically held a different perspective on the family structure can put the relationship between Umi and Shun into the context of the time.
Hayao Miyazaki is known for having meticulous attention to detail, and because he is credited as a writer on this film, I have to assume that the story between Shun and Umi is portrayed the way that it is for a reason, and that it has deeper meaning. It is interesting to consider that their relationship could have been received differently just a generation prior, and as such the shift in morals could be just another way that the film demonstrates how the influence of the West had saturated the culture around them. This is a film about young people who are looking to the past to connect with their cultural identity during a time of rapid change and erasure, and incest certainly stands out as one cultural marker that without a doubt is the antithesis to everything that could be perceived as modern and Western during that time. In a sense, having the protagonists choose this relationship could pit traditional Japanese ideologies against American influenced westernization, but I doubt that this is the message that the film was trying to put across. It isn’t as if Umi and Shun just accept that they are siblings and decide to be together; they are clearly disturbed by it, and they look for answers. When Umi declares that she loves him regardless of their relationship, it isn’t said in isolation: she says that she believes that her father sent him to her, revealing that there is an element of faith involved. Umi isn’t saying that she just wants to go ahead and be with him despite this, she is saying that she believes that her father sent him to her for a reason, as in, that the truth is out there and she isn’t willing to just give up. And with his permission, they look for answers together. I feel that the decision to keep this part of the story intact despite the sensibilities of Western viewers was in itself a statement against the active erasure of wartime history in an attempt to rebrand Japan as modern, democratic, and capitalist. In other words, Miyazaki wasn’t about to whitewash and erase history in a film where the importance of historic preservation is a major plot point.
From Up on Poppy Hill is a portrait of Japan after over 100 years of “modernization.” 100 years of transition that began with the arrival of foreign Black Ships that forced the nation onto the world stage and marked the end of 300 years of isolation and peace. It is interesting to think that this rebranding in time for the Olympics is one of many that the nation had undergone throughout this time. The filmmakers of From Up on Poppy Hill were cognizant of the impact of 100 years of foreign influence, wars, upheaval, and the many shiny things that make for an unstable base when laying foundations. The film looks to the children for definition, for a sense of purpose, for an identity. Umi, Shun, and the members of the Latin Quarter exemplify an innocence uncorrupted by the wartime ideologies of the past and not yet absorbed into the global capitalist ideologies taking hold of the nation; they occupy a safe space from where they can explore and become rooted in the truth of who they are, as people and as a nation, before they step onto the world stage.