Kokuriko zaka kara (From the Red Poppy Hill)

Rie Kido Askew, Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University [About | Email]

Volume 12, Issue 3 (Film Review 1 in 2013). First published in ejcjs on 17 February 2013.

A Review of: Kokuriko zaka kara (From the Red Poppy Hill) (2011)
Script: Miyazaki Hayao
Director: Miyazaki Gorō
Studio Ghibli

Those familiar with Miyazaki Hayao’s works will not be surprised to hear that the latest Ghibli animation film, Kokuriko zaka kara (From the Red Poppy Hill) is a nostalgic depiction of the good old days of Japan. It is perhaps surprising, however, that the story is set in 1963, the year before Tokyo Olympic Games. Japan was in the midst of the period of high economic growth during which it became the world’s second largest economy following the United States. This is usually seen as a time in which much of the nostalgically remembered old Japan was destroyed.

As the story proceeds, however, it becomes clear that the period setting matters. Kokuriko zaka kara is a story in which high school students in Yokohama successfully save an old building from destruction. During the period of high economic growth, many aspects of the traditional landscape were indeed destroyed due to a single-minded commitment to economic development.

Although Miyazaki’s intention is obviously to criticise the spiritual poverty of economism, the film is devoid of self-righteous hysteria. Instead, it is cheerful and full of humour. Viewers are shown the sweet, rich bookish culture that still existed in the early 1960s.

The film Kokuriko zaka kara is based on a manga story of the same title by Takahashi Chizuru serialised in Nakayoshi (Close Friends) in 1980. Miyazaki has made several important changes. The original story is set in the 1970s, and although there are some elements of social protest, such as the hero’s action to abolish the school uniform, it is basically a love story. Miyazaki changed this into a highly socialised story of cultural loss (and protection) by including the story of the old building.

The building is called Karuche Ratan (Quartier Latin). As the name may suggest, this is a Western-style building in which students pursue various after-school club activities. (Karuche Ratan is thus not traditional in the way temples in Kyoto are traditional. Still Yokohama is a Japanese city which has a long history of foreign settlement, and old Western buildings have long been a part of the landscape). Not only is the building old and charming, but its users are also charming. They are engaged in a non-utilitarian culture, pursuing activities such as philosophy that they never tire talking about. Both the building and the culture it represents are unwanted in the age of economism and utilitarianism. The school principal wants to demolish the building and erect a new one. One of the leading figures of opposition is the hero of the story, Kazama Shun, who also uses the building as a member of the Literature Club. In one of the meetings against the demolition, he says “Destroy the old and you destroy our memory of the past. Don’t you care about the people who lived and died before us? There’s no future for people who worship the future and forget the past.”

This speech moves our heroine, Mastuzaki Umi (meaning ocean: she is called Meru after the French mer). Meru also lives in a lovely old Western-style house which belongs to her grandmother where the family runs a lodging house. Since Meru’s father, who was a sailor, is missing, presumed dead, and her mother, who is a university professor, is in America on business, Meru cooks for the family and lodgers, and takes care of them. Longing for her father, she runs flags up a flagpole everyday so that if he ever returns, he could easily recognise his house. Kazama has been watching these flags from his father’s ship—his father is also a sailor—and is secretly in love with her.

One day, Meru’s sister, Sora (meaning sky), decides that she wants Kazama’s autograph (he is a star-like figure in the school). Persuaded by Sora, Meru reluctantly visits Kazama in Karuche Ratan with her sister. This meeting closes their distance. They become friends and come to develop romantic feelings.

Meru suggests that Kazama clean the building. It is used by male students, and the interior of the building is messy and dirty. For that reason, female students often avoid it. Meru is sure that when the building is clean and pleasant, many people will start to love it and deplore the idea of its loss. Kazama agrees. Thus a great cleaning which involves many students (including female students) begins. Karuche Ratan is reborn.

However, as soon as the students finish cleaning and delight in their achievement, they hear the shocking news that the school principal is going to pull down the building despite their efforts. Kazama and Meru decide to appeal directly to the person who has the ultimate power of influence: Chairman Tokumaru, who is the president of a prestigious bookshop in Tokyo. The students expect that Tokumaru will be a high-handed suit, but he turns out to be a friendly and understanding adult. He promises to visit Karuche Ratan to see whether the building deserves to be preserved.

The visit is the climax of the story (at least regarding the issue of cultural loss). Tokumaru is welcomed with passionate applause by the students who fill the entire building. When Tokumaru asks one of the students what he is studying, the student answers that he is studying sunspots. He is a student of the Astronomy Club, which has been engaged in studying the sun for ten years. To the question what the club has discovered over the last ten years, he answers with utmost sincerity and earnestness: “The sun is old, and our lifespan is short. No discoveries so far, sir!” Tokumaru obviously likes this honest answer.

Tokumaru next talks to a student of the Philosophy Club. Looking at the tiny compartment of the Philosophy Club, he asks if the student would like a brand new clubhouse. To this question, the student answers, “Sir, we philosophers can be content with just a barrel.” Tokumaru chuckles, exclaiming “Diogenes! Very good.” He is again impressed by the student. (Here I am sure that many viewers would be impressed not only by the student but also by the chairman.) Being a cultured person himself, Tokumaru appreciates the culture of the students. At the end of his visit, he says to all the students, “My friends, you have shown me the Karuche Ratan’s true value. How can we educate the young without protecting our culture?” Thus the decision is made to preserve the building and the culture it embodies.

I realise that the “culture” here is a highly Westernised culture which someone like Mishima Yukio (1925-1970) would criticise as a lingering impact of the Taishō period culturalism. Mishima was of course well informed about Western culture and would not disapprove of it in itself. (Western culture has after all been an important part of modern Japanese culture since the Meiji Restoration.) What he disapproved of was the new generation’s lack of Japanese culture. He claimed that he belonged to the last generation which was at all informed about Japanese culture. He thus deplored the loss of Japanese culture.

In this film, however, even the Westernised culture of the 1960s is depicted with nostalgia. Clearly, Miyazaki believes that Japan today has almost no culture, either Western or Japanese. For me, to see the depiction of this rich culture was refreshing and endearing. What a charming part of Japan’s past, and what a great loss! Kazama says “there is no future for people who worship the future and forget the past.” Is it too late to learn modestly from the past now?

About the Author

Rie Kido Askew is at Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University.

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