Three high school friends from Yokohama are on a mission as they take the train to downtown Tokyo. In Goro Miyazaki‘s film, From Up on Poppy Hill (コクリコ坂から), it’s 1963, the Olympics are a year away, and Tokyo is crowded with people, congested with cars, and filled with the sounds of jackhammers and creaking of cranes.

Up on Poppy Hill_construction

Change is coming to Tokyo, for good and for bad. A subplot focuses on the high school students who are protesting the decision to demolish an old mansion that houses the various clubs that make the school’s social tapestry: the philosopher’s club, a newspaper, a group that forecasts the contents of future exams. A small group of students eventually change the views of the majority who had previously believed that “out with the old and in with the new” applied to all places and things. This sweeping change in views saves the club house.

Certainly, that was a powerful societal theme in Tokyo in the 1960s – How do we change and modernize so that the international community looks upon Japan with respect and admiration, while still maintaining who we are as Japanese?

Up on Poppy Hill_Olympic Sign
“For a successful Olympics, make Tokyo beautiful.”

The main plot is a love story between Umi, a girl who lost her father in the Korean War, and Kazuma, a boy who’s real father is a mystery, but was at first suspected to be the same as Umi’s. The mystery unravels as Umi and Kazuma ask questions about their past, learning of the pain and angst of their parents’ generation who lived and died in the turmoil and confusion of the Pacific and Korean wars.

And yet, because this is a story of young love, the tone is upbeat and sweet. The son of acclaimed anime director and screen writer of this film, Hayao Miyazaki, applies a rosy sentimental touch to the times. The film opens with a springy, jazzy tune called “The Breakfast Song”, that speaks of the optimism that comes with the day’s first meal.

The scene when Umi and Kazuma’s love first blooms enters with the bouncy hit song of that time, Kyu Sakamoto’s “Ue o Muite, Arukou” (aka: The Sukyaki Song). You can see that in this clip below (with English subtitles).

Want to take a nostalgic look at Japan in 1963? Watch From Up on Poppy Hill.

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“Teams were assigned a minder,” Victor Warren explained to me. “Our guide, our liaison, our gal was Michiko, a delightful young lady. When we won, which was rare, she cried. When we lost, she cried.”

Warren, a member of the Canadian field hockey team at the 1964 Tokyo Games, explained that one day, Michiko handed out a song sheet to the team. It was the popular children’s song,  “If You’re Happy and You Know it, Clap Your Hands”…except it was in Japanese. “The wording was shiawase nara te o tatakou or something like that. We all sang it on the bus, and it was delightful.”

One of the hottest singers in Japan, and the world, at that time was Kyu Sakamoto, who had released this song in 1964, 5 months before the start of the Olympics.

Kyu Sakamoto, crooner of hit song, Sukiyaki, visiting the Olympic Village in 1964. From the book,
Kyu Sakamoto, crooner of hit song, Sukiyaki, visiting the Olympic Village in 1964. From the book, “Tokyo Olympiad 1964”.
It hit number one on the American Billboard Hot 100 in June, 1963. Number 1. And not a word in English. The title – Sukiyaki – had nothing to do with the song lyrics.

The man who sang this international hit was Kyu Sakamoto, pictured above hanging out with Aussie athletes at the Olympic Village. During the Olympics, Sakamoto performed the song on Swedish television – live – which was a big deal in those days.

The song was first released in the Fall of 1961 under the title, Ue o Muite Aruko (上を向いて歩こう), and enjoyed number 1 status for several months until early 1962. The owner of a British record label heard the song in Japan, and likely due to its catchy melody, thought there would be an audience in England, despite the fact that the song was in Japanese. The record owner’s instincts, including the decision to re-name the song after a popular Japanese dish, were superb as the record hit #6 on the charts in Britain, as well as #1 in countries like Australia, Canada and Norway.

By the time the Summer Games in Tokyo rolled around in 1964, many an Olympian would have been familiar with the song, Sukiyaki.

While Sakamoto travelled the world singing his hit song, appearing on programs like The Ed Sullivan Show, he never climbed beyond one-hit-wonder status. And at the young age of 42, Sakamoto died spectacularly in the deadliest plane crash in Japan’s history, the Japan Airlines Flight 123 that slammed into a mountain side in Gunma, Japan, ending the lives of 505 people on board.

The cheerful title (Look Up and Walk) and melody belies the lyrics, which describe a man smiling and whistling through pain and loss, holding the tears at bay as he contemplates another night alone. Listen to Sakamoto’s syrupy version above. Get uplifted by the cheery melody. You’d never think the song is about pain.

Below is a version of the song in English by Jewel Akens in