Srđan Tunić

art historian, freelance curator, cultural manager and researcher

Kokurikozaka kara (コクリコ坂から, From Up On Poppy Hill, 2011) – review

Kokurikozaka kara (コクリコ坂から, From Up On Poppy Hill, 2011)

An article made for web magazine Afirmator, in Serbian:,

The last animated film by studio Ghibli, signed by director Gorō Miyazaki, titled Kokurikozaka kara appeared last year, and is based on a manga work of the same name from ’80s of last century.

After the initial cooling of relations between the son and the father Miyazaki before Gorō’s debut feature film from 2006, Gedo Senki (ゲド戦記, Tale of the Earthsea), Hayao made storyboards and scenario for Gorō’s second film. For the time being, this is the “freshest” engagement of Hayao Miyazaki, after his last film Gake no Ue no Ponyo (崖の上のポニョ, Ponyo on the cliff by the sea) from 2008 (although he is trying to retire for more than 15 years, I still hope he will stay an active part of studio Ghibli).

The very first scenes show that Gorō stayed faithful to Ghibli studio traditional visual aesthetics, as well as to the prevailing topic of growing up (since Nausicaä, the main protagonists are young girls shōjo), although he is making a deflection from studio’s typical fantasy genre. The framework of this drama is situated in Japan after Second World War, focused the life of a 16 year old girl named Umi, living with her family in a house on the Poppy hill, with a view on a harbour Yokohama. Also, she is the character through whose eyes and perspective we are observing the narrative – through a “small”, intimate, generational story.

(here comes spoilers 🙂

Through this anime, apart from the growing up process and teenage themes (falling in love, school, among others), we could find an interesting story about the society – exploring the recent past (on the similar, yet different  example of imagining a history of a place check Maimai Shinko to sen-nen no mahō, マイマイ新子と千年の魔法, Mai Mai Miracle from 2009). On one hand, we could follow Umi’s world, and on the other through details of everyday life, house interiors, depictions of harbour and nature, small narratives, background information and memory, we could gain a feeling of a historic and local time and space. On the occasion of a trip to the capital, we see Tokyo in the state of becoming a modern city, actively preparing for the upcoming Olympics of 1963.

Together with the process of modernisation and a look into the future (and youth), we see too a process of questioning, and parallel, the remembrance of the past. Through several narratives one could form a picture of the recent past – the Korean War (1950-53) fought between South (backed by U.S.A. and a couple of military corpuses from the world) and North Korea (supported by U.S.S.R.). In Kokurikozaka kara we could see clearly present the youth getting introduced in the war from fragments and intimate histories, but with a distance, whose repercussions are still present and live on. Japan as a country went through the shame of being WWII’s loser, and in the following years there were many mixed marriages with U.S.A. soldiers and others, which presented a fruitful ground for rising social differences and opposed ideologies (West-modernisation, Japan-tradition, on that subject check anime series Sakamichi no Aporon, 坂道のアポロン, Kids on the Slope 2012).

The war is presented without naming sides (“The bomb”, “The Korean war”), but ideological impulses are present among the teenagers who squatted and pre war building named The Latin Quarter. Inside it one could find high school societies and clubs in whose organisation a key part holds Shun, Umi’s friend. Students are organising discussions and plenums, initiating questions as democracy, anarchism, futurism (namely enthusiasts who are defending everything new), as well ones who are looking for the middle path (“old” and “new”), questions still being active in contemporary Japan.

One of the intriguing topics in the film is a custom of adopting orphans after the Korean and WWII by Japanese soldiers – comrades and friends. That situation naturally brought to potential incests in post-war generation, depicted in the movie between Umi and Shun, standing as a threat to their teenage love. Their first mutual step is shaped by the heritage of their fathers – sailors, when Shun discovered naval signal flags which Umi is sending every morning, responding to her on the same way. An interesting moment is when Umi’s artistic older sister depicted, in neo/abstract expressionism style, a sea with a boat carrying the same naval flags, where Umi discovered that someone is actually answering her message “Praying for a safe journey”.

This hand and computer animated film, peaceful and easy in tempo, in 91 minutes is offering plenty of detailed and a rich emotional atmosphere, seeming measured and not pathetic, even in depicting “hot” topics such as the youth and nostalgia. Establishing relations with history through anime presents an interesting and fruitful moment of contemporary animation, where, apart from fun, sometimes one could find “serious” topics – philosophical, historical, scientific…

After watching this film, there is a great impression of nostalgia, which reminded me of a book named The future of nostalgia by Russian writer and professor Svetlana Boym. Among other, she defined two types of nostalgia: first is a restorative one, hand in hand with traditionalism and nationalism, wishing to restore some other, nicer past, the return to homeland; the second is a reflexive one, questioning, contemplative, fragmentary, with an individual approach to the objects of nostalgia. Trying to test these definitions on From up a Poppy hill, we could see both are applicable: restorative, because it gives a restoration of a specific time and part of history, with a strong potential of longing, sometimes seeming (visually and emotionally) nicer, but also reflexive, because it faces with the past, horrible and unknown war inheritance. As viewers, one can have a feeling of being “guided” through the narrative which is allocated, and through which focus one is “reading” the messages, making this film somewhere between reconstruction and fiction.

WWII themes are present in a couple of other anime films: a dark war tragedy made by studio Ghibli Hotaru no Haka (火垂るの墓, Grave of the Fireflies, 1988), post-war growing-up and a hope for a better future JAPAN Furusato Japan (ふるさと, Japan, Our Homeland 2006) and, although not showing the war, but situated in that period, Tonari no Totoro (となりのトトロ, My Neighbor Totoro, 1988). Hayao Miyazaki made a small amount of films unwinding in the present moment (Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi,千と千尋の神隠し, Spirited Away from 2001, already mentioned već Ponjo and Lupin the 3rd) or the future (Nausicaä), while mostly focused on the past (Mononoke, Porco rosso, Kiki’s delivery service, Laputa, Totoro, Howl…) and its fantasy potential.

On his second director film, Gorō Miyazaki showed that he can skilfully make a fantasy and a “real” life film (although my sympathies are moving towards the latter). After two animated films based on pre-written sources (manga, book), maybe we could expect the future one to be orientated to creating a more personal story.

Srđan Tunić

Curator – art historian

Written in Serbian in August 2012

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This entry was posted on 11/03/2013 by in film and tagged , , , , , , , .


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