Ghibli explores childhood nostalgia in Isao Takahata’s understated romantic drama.
Who made it?: Isao Takahata (Director/Writer), Toshio Suzuki (Producer), NTV/Studio Ghibli/Tokuma Shoten.
Who’s in it?: Japanese voice cast – Miki Imai, Toshiro Yanagiba, Yoko Honna.
IMDb rating: 7.8/10.
Only Yesterday is a rarity when it comes to its subject matter and the medium that produced it. It’s not every day that you see an animated film that feels and plays out like a drama usually seen in live-action flicks. Grave of the Fireflies director Isao Takahata returned with this adult-oriented feature that exhibits the director’s preference for realism. One of Studio Ghibli’s most underrated productions, its a very contemplative and sentimental film that can be surprising in how it delivers its charm and laughs.
Set in 1982, the story follows Taeko, an unmarried twenty-seven-year-old office worker from Tokyo who goes on a trip to visit her in-law family in the countryside. While on a sleeper train, she remembers the memories of herself as a fifth-grader back in 1966. As she becomes more nostalgic for her childhood, she wonders if she’d achieved the dream she had back then, rethinking her current status on her career and love life.
While it was a huge commercial and critical success in Japan, Only Yesterday usually goes under the radar when it comes to Ghibli films elsewhere. It’s quite surprising that an animated picture with a largely adult mindset would be such a hit. As usual for Takahata, Only Yesterday is completely focused on verisimilitude. The majority of the scenes are just the characters talking about life, doing mundane everyday things, and dealing with moment to moment situations. The director has an uncanny ability to give a certain appeal to these seemingly dull and boring aspects, and you will find yourself strangely laughing at them because of how relatable they are. A notable example is when a young Taeko becomes excited when her father buys a pineapple, a fruit that none of her family has ever seen before. It focuses on them figuring out how to eat it, even showing the entire method of cutting it. As they finally eat the pineapple, they are disappointed with the taste. Taeko, trying to justify her previous enthusiasm for the food, forces herself to finish the fruit. It’s a surprisingly amusing scene and a very definitive sum-up of Takahata’s style and the tone across the whole film.
The plot goes back and forth in a sporadic fashion between Taeko as an adult and as a child. The entire film is pretty much a character study. While she reminisces on her childhood, the story uses these reverential trips to tell why she’s the person she is right now. As Taeko comes across something that reminds her of her youth, she connects it to an event from her childhood experiences to make an almost analogical comparison to her current situation. The topics that Taeko remembers are quite random and unpredictable in an entertaining way. One moment, she’s thinking about how the banana is the king of fruits, and then in the next scene, she talks about how The Beatles became popular in Japan. These segments do feel like amusing fillers at first glance but they have purpose on showing Taeko’s psyche.
Even with a down-to-earth tone, Yesterday does address a few subject matters that people go through in their lifetime, and they are the reasons why it is aimed at adult audiences. It touches upon issues like the difficulty of finding love, settling down, and puberty. In one of the scenes with Taeko as a child, all the girls in school are taught about periods. After one of them tells a boy about it, the topic spreads throughout the school and became somewhat of a trend, showing increasing insecurities for the girls and the immature attitude of the boys. In the present, the adult Taeko has to deal with the pressures from her family on getting married since she’s almost nearing her 30’s. Because the film is entirely about her, she feels like an individual that we’ve met before. Both incarnations are interesting because they are relatable to a fault, which adds an incredible authenticity to Takahata’s approach.
Similar to Grave of the Fireflies, Only Yesterday’s animation concentrates on the smaller things. It doesn’t have any elaborate sequences and instead focuses on simple actions that are much closer to reality. Takahata has a different visual style to Miyazaki, particularly in how the characters show facial expressions. A minor nit-pick I have is that, while I know that the director puts more lines and curves on faces to show age, Taeko’s huge grin just freaks me out – it’s like a female Joker. Fortunately, her cuter child self is much more predominant in the entire runtime, so we don’t have to stare at her smile incessantly.
Only Yesterday showcases Studio Ghibli’s ability to appeal to a much older crowd. Its a very well thought-out character study that really fleshes out the main heroine – an ordinary person – and portrays her as someone you will likely meet in your time. Its grounded themes, everyday topics, and the methodical and deliberate way it paces itself will put off anyone that wants more meat and immediacy in their stories, but it’s a worthwhile watch once in a while. If you give it a chance, you might find yourself charmed by how it portrays everyday struggles in such a downplayed manner. Just keep that grin away from me…
End credit song. Way better than the Bette Midler version!
Although the Walt Disney Company paid for the US distribution rights as part of its deal with Studio Ghibli, executives later decided that it could not release Only Yesterday in the US – Disney’s stated reason was because the film contained references to menstruation (a clause in Ghibli’s distribution contract prohibited Disney from altering the scene to remove the references).
The ending theme song “Ai ha Hana, Kimi ha Sono Tane” is a translated version of “The Rose,” written and composed by Amanda McBroom and performed by Bette Midler for the 1979 movie of the same title.
The pan pipe song that plays during the car ride is called “Cantec de nunta” which in Romanian means “Wedding Song.”