Grappling with notions of past, present and future in Kokurikozaka Kara
August 23, 2012 Leave a comment
While Kokurikozaka Kara (From Up On Poppy Hill) is a coming-of-age drama about a girl learning to accept her past and move on to her future, there is far more to this film than just this. At the centre of Kokurikozaka Kara we have a story about the importance of recognising and understanding your past in order to live in the present and push forwards to a future. It deals with themes that are central to Japanese society, but are often ignored, or invoked in very specific contexts. The film is set in 1963 a year before the Tokyo Olympics in 1964, only two years after the dramatic student riots that have left an indelible mark on Japanese society and laws. It is a period of activism all around the world as well, with numerous people’s movements coming out in opposition to what they see as destructive or oppressive governments and leaders. That Kokurikozaka Kara is set during this period seems significant due to the reasons and nature of the student protests, along with the context within which our characters live.
First let us explore the reasons for these student riots and how they fit into the characterisations and story that are present in Kokurikozaka Kara. The Japanese student movement began during the Taisho democracy, a pre-war period where the Diet of Japan ruled in the stead of a weak emperor, thus providing a significant amount of civil and intellectual freedom. These movements grew after World War II, and during the 1960s sparked off several riots (1960 and 1968-1970) in opposition to Anpo, or to give it its full title, The Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between the United States and Japan. This treaty still exists as a major source of contention due to the continued American Military presence in Japan, and in particular the bases on Okinawa and Yokohama. While the politics of this situation are incredibly complex, however in part it was due to students feeling that they had no say in how Japan was governed. Furthermore, the constant presence of the American military gave, and arguably still gives people the impression that Japan as a country is not trusted by the outside world.
This all feeds into this central theme within Kokurikozaka Kara of acknowledging your past and accepting it as part of who you are. In the film we see students at a high school in Yokohama protesting at the planned demolition of their dilapidated, but nevertheless stately French-style clubhouse. To these students the clubhouse is part of their history, and has been standing since before the war, thus it is an integral part of their lives and that of the school and Yokohama as a whole. This is actually part of another movement that was taking place during the 1960s, and has already featured in the Ghibli film Pom Poko. During the 1960s, while the student movements were taking place there was also a significant amount of development happening all around Japan, and in particular around Tokyo. Townships and villages were all joined, with entire mounts moved or demolished in order to make way for the new urban sprawl.
During this period of mass urbanisation there appears to be a complete disregard for the history of Japan, with entire towns swept away in this sea of tarmac and concrete. Old buildings that managed to withstand the initial urbanisation of Japan during the 18th and 19th centuries are torn down to make way for flats. There are also stories of old shrines that get moved to more ‘advantageous’ spots that fit with the developer’s plans. This is just another step in what could be considered the Japanese industrial revolution, with the creation of an ultra-modern society in the space of a century, whereas other countries took far longer. However, as Miyazaki has asked in several of his films, at what cost has this urbanisation and modernisation come?
One of the elements of the film that helps to provide an insight into the problematic nature that history has in Japanese society is the idea of authority. While authority is important in one respect, many appear to believe that you must follow it without question, something that is arguably true of all societies and not unique to Japan. To certain students in the film we see the attitude that they must trust in and believe what the board of governors and teachers have said. They are therefore putting all their faith and belief in these adults, and are incapable of thinking for themselves, at the same time they are one element of the post-war generation in Japan, striving for new and exciting things, while simultaneously leaving and perhaps forgetting about the past. This feeds into the attitudes that many have regarding Japan as a country and society, with the notion that all Japanese follow rules and regulations without question. Often the idea of the Bushido code is invoked to demonstrate the importance of following the lord (authority) above all else. While this is true there is a central element to this code that is often forgotten or overlooked, and that is of individual thinking.
It is important to follow orders, but at the same time it is equally, and perhaps more important to follow your instincts and your brain. Shun, Umi and the other students clearly respect authority in their own way, but at the same time they are unwilling to take authority on face value. To the students we see a split, withy many believing that they should all look to the future, suggesting that the past is not important or is a burden. To these students, and to the many people who are involved in these demolition plans, this old clubhouse is something tying them to an unwelcome past. It is a reminder of Japan’s colonial days, a period that it could be argued some Japanese wish to forget, pretending that it never happened. However, to the majority it is something to be treasured, a beautiful building full of history and the feelings of those who have come before. Not only does it represent the past, but it also represents the freedom that this new generation have, with freethinking individuals who wish to push forwards on their own path through life.
Through a chance meeting the Shun and Umi as the central characters bring together the student body in an effort to repair and save their club-house. As we watch these students work, the club-house undergoes a transformation, changing from a dilapidated ‘shack’, into a beautiful building reminiscent of Paris. In there attempt to save this building we also see the student body pulling together in a way that they would have been incapable of before. In a very real sense this is a community effort with the students demonstrating to their teachers and the schools board that the past matters. By demolishing old buildings you are destroying history, cutting yourself off from the past and where society has come from, new in this respect is most certainly not always better, and in many ways is far worse.
Within this story we have Shun and Umi struggling with their own pasts and presents, haunted by memories and thoughts of what might happen and what may have happened. Umi is still stuck in the past, raising flags to her long dead father while also attempting to manage her family business and deal with rigors of the present. While she seems to be in the present there is the impression that her feet are firmly rooted in the past, forever waiting for her father to return home safe and triumphant. The attempt to renovate and save the old club-house gives her the opportunity to focus on the present, living life day by day, even though there are hints that she cannot let go of her past.
We also see Shun stuck in the past, and struggling with the present and future. While he is fighting to save the clubhouse he cannot escape from the worries of his past and his family. He is an orphan and unsure of his lineage, he feels as if he has no roots and no place to go or to live, aimlessly moving from one place to another in search of somewhere to belong. The clubhouse seems to provide a solid foundation for him, allowing Shun to focus on the present. However, like the clubhouse it is Shun’s past that is important, and is something that he cannot ignore forever. What is so fascinating about these two characters is how they come to realise that the past is the past and should not hold them back. At the same time recognising this allows them to look at the past in a very different light, recognising its power and its importance without being controlled by it. They are able to come to terms with their own worries and demons, pushing inexorably forward to their uncertain future.
It is a film set during a fascinating time of Japan’s post-war history, one of social movements and degradation, a time when Japan became this modern society with Tokyo as its central metropolis. Hayao Miyazaki and his son Goro Miyazaki question this however, asking us about the costs of such a rise to modernity. Kokurikozaka Kara like Pom Poko uses a simple story to problematise the narratives and question the ideologies of this period in Japan’s history. The simple answer is that we likely do not know, but it is clear from these films and from the concrete jungle that is now Tokyo that something important was lost during this period of modernisation. Furthermore, that there are now apparent so few who question this or even ask about this element of the past suggests that certain elements of Japan’s past have been lost. Instead we see a history of the glory of Japan taught, free of the important but complicated questions surrounding these social movements and the place that Japan now occupies in the world. At the same time we must be careful not to oversimplify and suggest that the Japanese do not question society, something that is clearly the case since films such as Kokurikozaka Kara exist today.