Only Yesterday (1991)

My favourite Isao Takahata—a poignant and nostalgia-tinged tribute to memory, time, childhood and love in what could be Studio Ghibli’s finest work.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Review #486

Dir. Isao Takahata
1991 | Japan | Animation/Drama | 118 mins | 1.85:1 | Japanese
PG (passed clean)
for thematic elements, some rude behavior and smoking 

Cast: Miki Imai, Toshiro Yanagiba, Youko Honna
Plot: A 27-year-old office worker travels to the countryside while reminiscing about her childhood in Tokyo.
Source: Studio Ghibli

Accessibility Index
Subject Matter: Moderate – Memory, Childhood
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex
Pace: Normal
Audience Type: Slightly Mainstream

Viewed: DVD
First Published: 7 Feb 2010
Spoilers: No

Only Yesterday is one of the great animated films to come out of the early ’90s.  Studio Ghibli stalwarts Hayao Miyazaki (who serves as producer for this film) and director Isao Takahata combine to deliver an immensely heartwarming film about memories of the past.

Only Yesterday is essentially a Takahata film because it deals with nostalgia.  Takahata is a realist filmmaker whose Grave of the Fireflies (1988) remains to be one of the most heartbreaking films ever made.  

He is a director who values the past and uses it as a construct to further our understanding of one’s identity and more importantly, one’s inner feelings which could be difficult to translate into words because of abstraction.

Miyazaki, on the other hand, is a conjurer of fantasy, whose films such as Princess Mononoke (1997) and Spirited Away (2001) bring our wildest imaginations to life.  

It appears to be that Miyazaki is the more popular and acclaimed filmmaker of the two, but Takahata’s films are powerful explorations of the personal which can enlighten us in ways we probably would not have felt before.

Only Yesterday centers on an unmarried woman who lives in Tokyo.  Her name is Taeko, and she is lonely and unhappy.  She recollects of her time when she was a child when during the holidays she would visit the countryside for bathhouses to relax in.  

The film becomes a partial flashback of her memory.  She remembers key moments in her life – her conservative father’s refusal to allow her to act, embarrassing episodes of infatuation and discussion about ‘periods’ with her classmates, her incapability to understand mathematical fractions – and reflects on their influences toward the indescribable emptiness she is feeling in her life now.

“Rainy days, cloudy days, sunny days… which do you like?”

Taeko decides to move to the countryside for a while.  Over there, she discovers answers to her identity, and eventually finds meaning in her life.  Takahata’s microscopic observation of the nuances of his culture’s social fabric allows his screenplay to connect emotionally to his audience.  

A scene features Taeko’s family at the dinner table admiring a fruit (i.e. pineapple) they have bought but have not seen before.  Anticipating an exotic food experience, they take several optimistic bites, but all except Taeko are left disappointed with its bland taste.

In another sequence (arguably the film’s most exquisite), Taeko, who is on her way home after school, meets the boy who has a crush on her along a side street.  Both are delicately painted against the shimmering horizon.

Moments of awkward silence are interrupted by stammered bursts of one-word verbal exchanges.  Takahata films this with child-like innocence and captures the emotion of “first love” so vividly that it would be hard not to smile with a blush.

Takahata’s broad, watercolor-esque drawings differ from the intricacy of Miyazaki’s finely-detailed ones.  But both share similar aesthetic merits and have become the Studio Ghibli style of hand-drawn animation. 

Only Yesterday concludes with one of the most understated but emotionally overwhelming endings ever – a five minute end title sequence which brings the story to a poignant close through a montage accompanied by a stirring song sung in Japanese.  

Grade: A+




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