How did an American kid fall in love with the mystery of a Japanese schoolteacher?

“I love my schoolteacher Mr Y that much that I could never hate him,” wrote Miyazaki, his first name misspelled, of Eiji Tomomi, the pseudonym of his fourth-grade teacher. The story he mentioned took…

How did an American kid fall in love with the mystery of a Japanese schoolteacher?

“I love my schoolteacher Mr Y that much that I could never hate him,” wrote Miyazaki, his first name misspelled, of Eiji Tomomi, the pseudonym of his fourth-grade teacher. The story he mentioned took place in the 1890s and involved a strange train named The Roc (that’s still here, but not usually referred to as the Roc).

“Many times he passed us some yellowed foot-long paperclips, and when we insisted that our school had never sent these to us, he said: ‘I forgot I wrote something on the paper.’ That made me wonder if he wasn’t entirely full of himself. Then the story began, telling how the heads of some stationee would ask the postmaster to put hot coal in one of the rails. An excellent way to pass one’s time.”

Unfortunately, no one else could notice the resemblance to the autograph on the passbook. “I suspect that the block of eight carriages originally contained more cars, but that one got left behind.”

Luckily, that’s all she wrote. But then a surprise visitor took a word out of the same notebook; it was a very scary magic lantern show the schoolteacher presented him with when he was a child; it was immediately labeled as “Unmask,” much to the young kid’s disquiet. Miyazaki may not have known, at the time, that the magician was the infamous Japanese writer and essayist Itsukichi Obuchi, a 19th-century writer still revered by many Japanese.

Haruki Murakami is not Japanese, but there are plenty of mysteries in his nearly three decades as a writer. “These tales of the amnesia created were really nice—Chionobori,” Murakami wrote of one story in his favourite childhood book, Hayao Miyazaki’s “The Roc.” “It’s a wonderful story in a way: I feel like I was just looking down the road, imagining myself in the heads of everyone I knew, even the imaginary ones. Of course I want to be a writer who can please anyone who might read my books.” Hayao Miyazaki adapted some of this story and similar ones into the eight-part anime series “From Up on Poppy Hill.” It’s so cleverly unusual that some have hailed it as a postmodern manga about postmodern Japanese culture, and the project even ran its own short film festival. “Poppy Hill” was one of the award-winning films of the 2008 Yokai Prize, Japan’s highest cultural award. You can re-watch Hayao Miyazaki’s adaptation of this story on YouTube.

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