Giving Up Or Being Overly Prudent Won’t Get You Anywhere

The following is an essay that was included with home video versions of the recent animated film From Up on Poppy Hill, from Studio Ghibli. The film’s director, Goro Miyazaki– son of Hayao Miyazaki– had written something that surprised me in how strongly it resonated with me personally. I’m providing it here in the hope that it will resonate with you as well.

Born in 1967, I grew up in the years of soaring economic growth in Japan, and I spent my youth in the heyday of the Bubble Economy. Those were carefree days of consumption and hedonism. The hit songs of the ’80s when we were teenagers sang of “youthful rebellion”, “freedom”, “dreams”, and “revolution”.

In a place where everything was already done and established, we dreamed that perhaps there still might be something we could change. But when the Bubble Economy burst, those dreams soon turned into hopeless despair. Nothing would change. There were repeated cries for change, but they all turned out to be bogus. Now, twenty years have passed, and without realizing it, we have discovered that our hopes and dreams to change the world have somehow been replaced by a longing for money and stability.

Ever since we could remember, we were consumers, and everything was available to us. We had nothing that we created ourselves – literature, movies, music, comic books and animation, even our own occupations. All things had been created by the previous generation.

There was no possible way for us to create something new and original. That was probably why we excessively craved “individuality”, “freedom” and “dreams”, but all inside an already defined perimeter. Deep down, I always had a sense of resignation.

I must confess that when working on From Up on Poppy Hill, I became desperate for the very first time in my entire life. I had thought I’d always given my utmost to every task I had attempted in the past – but somewhere inside, I knew that I had never pushed myself beyond a certain limit. There was always a kind of prudence and resignation in order to protect myself from caring too much, even when directing Tales from Earthsea.

Last summer, various circumstances drove me into a tight corner… the pressure of directing a second feature, failure with a film proposal, a script written by my father, a tough production schedule, the success of The Secret World of Arrietty, etc. But I had no time to stop or think, and I worked like mad.

I didn’t want to be defeated by my father’s script. The last thing I wanted to hear was that the screenplay was good, but the movie was not. This time, I felt I really needed to abandon my usual thought of “This should be good enough”.

While drawing the storyboards, my body began to fall apart, showing signs of wear and tear. A tooth cracked, my hairline started receding, my eyesight deteriorated, and my back went out on me for the first time in my life. And still, it felt like no matter how hard I tried to advance forward, I wasn’t getting any closer to my goal.

Even after completing the storyboards when production was at its peak, I continued to be tormented by this gnawing anxiety. Will my extra efforts pay off? I earnestly wished I could draw much better, if I only had more knowledge and experience. I couldn’t help feeling there was always something lacking. I never felt all this when I was working on Tales from Earthsea.

In May, we were finally in the last stages of production, and voiceover recording sessions began. Watching Masami Nagasawa, Junichi Okada, and the many voice cast members breathing life into our characters, a strong, odd feeling suddenly caught me. Somehow, without my knowing it, From Up on Poppy Hill had become a work much better than I had expected. How and why was I able to pull this off?

The movie that was nearing completion seemed like it was beyond my own capacity. I kept on wondering during the recording sessions, “Why was I able to create a movie like this?” I may sound like I’m a self-praising fool, but I couldn’t stop thinking this.

Perhaps I was just really lucky. Blessed with an excellent script, talented staff members, splendid music by Satoshi Takebe, and wonderful actors – these many treasures helped me come this far. My producer told me repeatedly how “lucky” I was, and I believed him.

And it’s fine that way, because I was able to come this far. “See? I could do this if I truly set my mind to it.” This is how I decided how I’d think about this situation.

For me, From Up on Poppy Hill was a journey that enabled me to remember what I had long forgotten, and to face what I had given up doing. Once, while an interviewer was scrutinizing me with many questions, I remembered that as a boy, I had dreamed of animation. But with my father there in front of me, I had given that up and buried that dream deep inside me in my adolescent years.

I blamed these times and my generation, but I myself was the one who had given up and was the coward. This may just seem like a personal problem, but for me, it feels like there is more to it. This is a problem we and the following generation must deal with. What the previous generation built may be huge and strong and beyond what we can handle, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t surpass it.

During the period of Umi and Shun’s story, in the year 1963, the skies must have been wide open and people could walk with their heads held high. Today, our view of the sky is so limited and blocked by so many things; we can just see a small piece of it. Yet, if we climb up high, that wide open sky should still be there.

Now, I feel as if Umi and Shun on the big silver screen are telling me: “You won’t get anywhere if you just give up or are overly prudent”.