Only Yesterday perfectly understands nostalgia and is all the better for it.
“I didn’t expect to bring my fifth-grade self along for the trip.”
I’ve mentioned a few times how near-perfect a good Ghibli drama can be. Taking the format usually reserved for children’s cartoons, outrageous sci-fi and crazy fantasy, Ghibli (on top of their pure-fantasy films Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away and the likes) crafted several dramas that could easily be live-action. Sometimes, perhaps to justify the medium, there was some fantasy element – see My Neighbour Totoro or Whisper of the Heart – and sometimes there wasn’t. Only Yesterday, one of the studio’s first outings, fits firmly in that second category.
It concerns Taeko, a young woman living in Tokyo. She’s spent almost her entire life there, is unmarried (gasp!), and has rarely left the city. At the start of the film, she tells friends she’s leaving the city to be with some family out in the country. This isn’t entirely true: she does go to the country, but to see the family of an in-law. She wants to spend time there to get away from the city and wants to help with the harvest of safflower.
On the train, she begins to recall memories of herself at eleven years old, always wanting to go on holiday, like her classmates, to family in the country she doesn’t have. In Yamagata, she is picked up by her brother-in-law’s second cousin Toshio, who she barely knows, but seems to get along with. He seems to have an easy going lifestyle, which she is jealous of. Her time in the countryside bring more memories flooding back of her days in fifth grade and she begins to wonder if she’s been true to her younger self all these years or not.
Only Yesterday at first seems sort of plotless. This is only kind of true: it does have a plot, but only really in passing. It’s about as concerned with the plot as it is with keeping a consistent timeline for the first twenty minutes as it jumps back and forth between flashbacks and the present day, not really establishing what’s what for little bit of time. The story doesn’t really start until the half-hour mark, but it’s worth sticking around for. Once you get past that, though, you’re left with a very well-made, touching piece of drama. With the bad stuff out of the way, let’s have a look at everything else:
Director Isao Takahata was a heavy hitter in Japanese media, having tonnes of TV directing credits under his name before moving to Ghibli, so he has some decent storytelling experience. His previous Ghibli film before working on Only Yesterday was Grave of the Fireflies, a film so drenched in realism and drama that Only Yesterday seems like escapist fantasy in comparison. In his control, the writing and direction is smooth, and the fact that the movie is lacking in plot actually works.
Under a less skilled team, something like this would collapse, and drag on like a broken caravan. Instead, it’s a touching tale of growing up and looking back. There’s a back and forth between the coming-of-age plot and adult drama that will speak to most audiences as well: the universal language of wanting to keep childhood close by in a world that often forces you to let it go. Taeko’s sort-of-story is the same for everyone. The details will change, sure, but lasting nostalgia for a time much simpler, when all you wanted to do was grow up, doesn’t.
To drive these points home, the film adopts a very nice visual style. Ghibli art is naturally great, but Only Yesterday does more with it. Like his later films My Neighbour the Yamadas and The Tale of Princess Kaguya, director Takahata uses the medium animation to his advantage, with a distinct change in looks from the present day to the past. Her nostalgia is framed like a watercolour, with negative space framing each scene. It’s a nice way to both distinguish it from the present and really make it seem like Taeko’s memory. Nothing else exists outside of the spot she stands in.
As a character study it works. It’s difficult at first to associate the acts of the young Taeko with the woman she is in the present day, but as the movie progresses, the links start to make sense. Taeko is very much a woman defined by her early adolescence: the good, the bad, and the traumatic have shaped who she is, and why she is on a train to the country looking to make rouge. It’s a testament to the people behind this that Taeko herself is nothing special: she’s about as run-of-the-mill as you can get, but this makes her a good slate on which the audience can project.
Only Yesterday can almost be seen as a template to which a lot of drama anime films have since adhered to. Makoto Shinkai’s gorgeous and heart-rending Five Centimetres per Second and Your Name (the latter of which was only release last year), shows that this style, while not the most traditional use anime, has definite staying power.
Verdict: Its sluggish pace won’t be for everyone, but those who are looking for a smart, touching take on nostalgia and growing up will find something special here.
The Asian Cinema Critic’s Patented Ratings System
Overall entertainment: 8.5/10
Sex: Ha, no
Violence: Hahahaha, no
Real life: I feel like I know everything about making rouge now
Memories: Sometimes can cause other people to trip over them
Kids: The worst, aren’t they?
King of Fruits: Pineapple or banana?
Only Yesterday (1991)
Also known as: おもひでぽろぽろ (Omoide Poro Poro), “Memories come tumbling down.”
Director: Isao Takahata
Writer: Isao Takahata
Taeko Okajima – Miki Imai
Toshio – Toshiro Yanagiba
Young Taeko – Yoko Honna
Tsuneko Tani – Mayumi Iizuka
Aiko – Mei Oshitani
Toko – Megumi Komine
Rie – Yukiyo Takizawa
Suzuki – Masashi Ishikawa
Shuji Hirota – Yuki Masuda
Taeko’s Mother – Michie Terada
Taeko’s Father – Masahiro Ito
Nanako Okajima – Yorie Yamashita
Yaeko Okajima – Yuki Minowa
Taeko’s Grandmother – Chie Kitagawa
Kazuo – Koji Goto
Kiyoko – Sachiko Ishikawa
Naoko – Masako Watanabe