“From Up on Poppy Hill” is about a daughter who longs for her dead father and every day sends him a message as if to guide him home. Even though I can easily empathize with its theme, “From Up on Poppy Hill” lacks anything interesting to say. Perhaps what is important here is the war that rumbles in the past and the potential Asian conflict that threatens Japan now.

Directed by Goro Miyazaki and scripted by his father, famed director Hayao Miyazaki, “From Up on Poppy Hill”  is the second animated feature directed by Goro (“Tales from Earthsea” was the first in 2006).

Based on a 1980 manga written by Tetsuro Sayama and illustrated by Chizuru Takahashi, the original title is “Kokuriko-zaka kara” which uses the French name for the flowers, Coquelicot. These are the red flowers and not the orange California poppy or the popular Icelandic poppies. You’d know the Papaver rhoeas as the corn poppy, corn rose, field poppy or the Flanders poppy. You might plant its cultivar form, the Shirley poppy. Although considered a weed, the flower has come to represent fallen soldiers.

The soldier in this case is the father of Umi Matsuzaki (Sarah Bolger in the English-language dubbed version). Something may be lost in translation. Listening to the dubbed version, I wonder if it’s clearer in the Japanese that the father isn’t just gone, he’s dead. The English script clarifies this later.

There are other things that might not be clear to Americans. Let’s start with the place: Yokohama. I lived in Yokohama for a year as an exchange student. It’s considered somewhat exotic for the average Japanese. It’s the second largest city in Japan with 3.7 million.  Although a city in its own right, Yokohama is sometimes considered a suburb of Tokyo.

From Tokyo to Yokohama, it’s about 27 miles or 45 minutes. That’s by car. But in the 1850s, it seemed much farther on foot or by horse. It’s distance from Tokyo and the palace of the emperor was just far enough away from the Tokugawa shogunate to make them feel safer. American Commodore Matthew Perry blew into Japan with a fleet of warships, arriving just south of Yokohama. With his cannons and guns, Perry demanded the opening of Japan. That deal was sealed with the Treaty of Peace and Amity in 1854 which opened up two ports (Shimoda and Hakodate) and guaranteed the safety of shipwrecked American sailors.  The United States-Japan Treaty of Kanagawa, also known as the Harris Treaty, established extraterritoriality and import taxes and other unequal conditions in 1858.

Yokohama was opened in 1859 as another base for foreign trade. The first English language newspaper was published there in 1861. An special area was established there for foreigners who were protected by their extraterritoriality both inside that moated area and outside. Amongst the foreigners were not only Europeans and Americans, but also Chinese immigrants. A Chinatown was established.  This early foreign influence is what makes Yokohama unique and even exotic to the Japanese. Much of Yokohama was destroyed during the Great Kanto earthquake in 1923. Allied World War II air raids also destroyed much of Yokohama, but the American Occupation used Yokohama as a base for supplies and personnel, particularly during the Korean War. The American military base was later moved to Yokosuka.

How the Japanese conceive of death and the afterlife another point. When my grandmother died, I recall how her younger brother in Japan had been angry that my state-side uncle, the eldest son of my grandmother, neglected to call them when she died. After all, they needed to say prayers for her. Her spirit was returning to Japan, just as I would. That might come as a surprise to my sister and my brother. My sister has only been to Japan once and my brother has never been.

This concept of spirits returning home isn’t just for foreign-born people of Japanese descent or those Japanese national living abroad. The Japanese take care of the spirits during August for O-bon.  During o-bon the spirits return to their furusato–ancestral homes–and the household altars. Even the living return to their ancestral homes and the Japanese have a specific verb for to return home. So many people return home during August, business is hard to conduct.

In the movie, one of the first things Umi does in the morning is put an offering of water to her father. You’ll see her place it before his photograph as part of a modest family altar. The 16-year-old Umi is a high school student in Yokohama. Her family runs a boarding house, Coquelicot Manor, that is connected to the old, more traditional-styled family home where her grandmother lives. Because Umi’s mother, Ryoko, is away studying in the U.S., Umi runs the boarding house under the supervision of her grandmother. The grandmother lives in an adjoining building of more traditional architecture. Umi prepares the meals, buys the groceries and makes sure her younger siblings get off to school on time. She also raises signal flags on a flag pole every morning to send a message to her deceased father that she prays for his safe return.

The flags are noticed by someone who rights a poem about them in the school newspaper. The author, Shun Kazama, has a meet-cute with Umi and her sister Sora. Shun is one of the editors of the newspaper which is one of many clubs that are housed in the Latin Quartier building. As the clubs are exclusively run by boys, the building is a mess and will be torn down. The rest of the movie focuses on saving the building and the budding romance between Umi and Shun which has a slight impediment that you know will eventually be resolved.

The girls names are a bit unusual. Umi means sea. Sora means sky. The Matsuzaki family also includes Riku and Nijie. Riku means land as in tairiku which means continent. Niji means rainbow. While there doesn’t seem to be an immediate kanji connection to me between Umi and Shun (the character for Shun means genius), the name of the chairman, Tokumaru (徳丸理事長) has some poetic significance because ships typically have the suffix maru in Japan and the same character is used. Rijichoo just means board chairman.

The movie is set in in 1963 as all of Tokyo and Japan prepares to host the 1964 Olympics. On their black and white television you’ll see what is supposed to be Kyu Sakamoto and this adds a layer of authenticity and sadness. Kyu Sakamoto was a boyish 22 at the time. His hit song, “Ue o muite aruko” was the only Japanese song to hit number one of the American pop Billboard charts as “Sukiyaki.”

Sakamoto toured the world in 1963 and 1964, showing buoyant face of Japan. Sakamoto had been born in Kanagawa prefecture (Kawasaki) and was the youngest of nine children which is why he was nicknamed Kyu (meaning 9).  He died in 1985, leaving behind two daughters and his actress wife (Yukiko Kashiwagi).

The words of the song are about loneliness. According to Wikipedia, Rokusuke Ei wrote the song to record his disappointment about a failed protest movement against the 1960 Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between the United States and Japan (日本国とアメリカ合衆国との間の相互協力及び安全保障条約 Nippon-koku to Amerika-gasshūkoku to no Aida no Sōgo Kyōryoku oyobi Anzen Hoshō Jōyaku) The treaty provided for the presence of U.S. military bases in Japan and the central debate was over the U.S. base in Okinawa. In Okinawa the military base covers one fifth of the small isolated island. The concerns ranged from noise and environmental concerns to the more recent anger over kidnapping and rape.

Japan wasn’t officially involved with the Korean War, but was viewed as an important strategic point in the world defense against communism according to some historians. During the Korean War, Japan’s main functions was as a military base for U.S. troops and a place for shipping supplies. Umi’s father worked as part of a transport crew for supplies and was killed during the Korean War. This movie does, like Swedish movie “Simon and the Oaks,” show how war touches people in countries that aren’t actually involved. Korea was much in the minds of the Japanese people when Umi’s father died and under the current circumstances in North Korea, the topic may be at the forefront of the Japanese now.

This isn’t the best movie out of Studio Ghibli and the direction adequate. There are some breaks in logic here and there and I wish I could listen to the Japanese instead of the English dubbing to compare the script to the translations.

In the end, this is a nostalgic look at Japan as it recovered from war and was looking forward into a bright future. The threat of the Korean War was over. Mostly, I came away with the Kyu Sakamoto’s famous song playing in my head for the last few days and that might be the best part of the whole movie. “From Up on Poppy Hill” won Best Animated Film at the 2012 Japanese Academy Awards.

Below are the lyrics with the English translation.

うえ を むいて あるこう

なみだ が こぼれ ない よう に

おもいだす はる の に

ひとりぼっちの よる

うえ を むいて あるこう

にじん だ ほし を かぞえて

おもいだす なつ の ひ

ひとり ぼっち の よる

しあわせ は くも の うえ に

しあわせ は そら の うえ に

うえ を むいて あるこう

なみだ が こぼれ ない よう に

なきながら あるく

ひとりぼっち の よる

おもいだす あき の ひ

ひとりぼっち の よる

かなしみ は ほし の かげ に

かなしみ は つき の かげ に

うえ を むいて あるこう

なみだ が こぼれ ない よう に

なかながら あるく

ひとりぼっち の よる

English translation

I look up as I walk

So that the tears won’t fall

Remembering those spring days

But I am all alone tonight.

I look up as I walk

Counting the stars with tearful eyes

Remembering those summer days

But I am all alone tonight

Happiness lies beyond the clouds

Happiness lies up above the sky

I look up as I walk

So that the tears won’t fall

Though the tears well up as I walk

For tonight I’m all alone

Remembering those autumn days

But I am all alone tonight

Sadness lies in the shadow of the stars

Sadness lurks in the shadow of the moon

I look up as I walk

So that the tears won’t fall

Though the tears well up as I walk

For tonight I’m all alone.

Here’s an English version:

It’s all because of you, I’m feeling sad and blue you went away, now
My life is just a rainy day and I love you so, how much you’ll never
Know you’ve gone away and left me lonely. Untouchable memories seem to
Keep hauting me another love so true, that once turned all my gray
Skies blue but you disappeared, now my eyes are filled with tears and
I’m wishing
You were here with me soaked with love all my thoughts of you now that
You’re gone I just don’t know what to do if only you were here, you’d
Wash away my tears the sun would shine, once again you’ll be mine all
Mine but in reality, you and I will never be cos you took your love
Away from me
(chorus) Girl, I don’t know what I did to make you leave me but what I
Do know, is that since you’ve been gone there’s such an emptiness
Inside, I’m wishing you to come back to me
If only you were here, you’d wash away my tears the sun would shine,
Once again you’ll be mine all mine but in reality, you and I will
Never be ’cause you took your love away from me. Oh baby you took your
Love away from me

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