One of the most interesting documentaries I’ve ever seen has been the “Up” series from England. The series started in 1964 with 7 Up, and is still going strong after almost fifty years.
The premise is simple: filmmakers document the lives of ordinary people, checking in with them every seven years. So at ages, 7, 14, 21, etc., these people get a visit from a film crew and update everybody on their lives.
The Up series has been incredibly influential, spawning other Up series around the world, including Japan.
The Japanese Up series is relatively young; so far, there are only three movies in the series — 7 Up, 14 Up, and 21 Up.
But those three movies have covered a lot of ground. The kids documented in Japan’s Up series seem to have been carefully chosen to represent some of the biggest issues in Japanese society and culture, and the more movies are made about them, the more the nuances of these issues come to light.
I recently watched 21 Up, the latest movie in the series, and here are some of the biggest issues the movie talks about.
Last year was a bad year for foreign relations for Japan. Between territorial disputes with China and Korea, Japan didn’t make a whole lot of friends.
Even though these island disputes were a huge deal last year, these issues go back decades, as we can see in 21 Up.
One of the girls in Japan’s Up series has a grandfather from the Kuril Islands, a stretch of islands between Russia and Japan that have been disputed for years and years.
In the span of these three movies, you can see her views change from “I hate the Russians, they need to give the islands back” to something more along the lines of “meh.” It will be interesting to see how her views change in the future.
American Military Bases
The US military has had a presence in Japan since the end of WWII, and has been a controversial topic ever since. The military brings with it noise pollution from its fighter jets, crashes and accidents, and soldiers who don’t always follow the rules.
For those reasons, Okinawans have had a strained relationship with US military bases. It’s easy to see why the two Okinawan girls in the Up series are concerned: one has to cover her daughter’s ears and comfort her every time a fighter jet goes roaring by.
The girls’ views towards the bases basically don’t change at all during the three movies, and the bases themselves don’t change any substantial amount. Will there ever be any change?
Pressures of Youth
Growing up in Japan is tough. The endless series of entrance exams, high expectations, and a seemingly endless recession makes youth a lot more stressful than you might expect.
You can see this in virtually every single kid in the Up series. Unless they spend hours a night on homework and countless time on test preperation, they struggle to make it into the schools they want and get the jobs they’ve dreamed of.
It makes you really question the whole education system. On the surface, it’s a meritocracy: the smartest kids get into the best schools. But for the kids in the Up series, it doesn’t quite seem fair.
Living as an ethnic minority in Japan has always been hard, especially since Japan is so ethnically homogenous.
Two of the kids in the series aren’t ethnically Japanese — one identifies as Korean, and the other as Chinese. Neither family seems to keen to stick around Japan for too long, and both kids generally stick with other people of the same ethnicity.
It all gives you the feeling that it’s hard for these kids to carve out their own niche in Japanese society. They both seem to be doing pretty well for themselves in 21 Up, so I’ll be eager to see how they do in the future.
If you’re looking for a movie about Japan that’s quirky, exciting, or weird, the Japanese Up series isn’t for you. It’s slow-paced and pretty mundane.
But that’s the point. The Up series shows you what the lives of ordinary people are like in Japan, regardless of how exciting or cool they are.
Above all, the value in the Up series is the process. The more movies in the series, the more we get to learn about its subjects and watch them grow up and live their lives.
The next movie in the series is 28 Up, which should come out in the next couple of years. While 28 Up probably won’t be the next Avatar, it will add yet another chapter to this incremental masterpiece.
You can watch 21 Up on Amazon.