Studio Ghibli Collection: Only Yesterday

December 20, 2004 on 9:25 pm | In Only Yesterday | Comments Off on Studio Ghibli Collection: Only Yesterday

Takahata Isao made a very quiet film in 1991. It was called Only Yesterday, a flawed yet beautiful look at a sixties childhood and life thereafter.

Okajima Taeko takes time off from her office job to visit the countryside of Japan and work on a farm. She remembers the time that she last visited the country, at ten years old. This initial reminiscence leads to Taeko reflecting on how little she has achieved in her life. Interspersed with Taeko’s growing understanding of her potential paths are further stand out events in her young life.
Taeko is concerned about her future. She feels that, at 27, in an office job and unmarried she has achieved very little in her life. She is invigorated by her visit to the countryside, and by her contact with Toshio, a boundlessly enthusiastic farmer. Perhaps the farm life would suit her best, but she feels like a fake to claim to love the country based on ten days there in a year.
The younger Taeko is an odd girl, who lives a family life where her older sisters are too old to accomodate her, her father is never around and her mother thinks that she’s a bit “challenged”. These segments are not linear at all, probably promoting the random nature of memory. Taeko is not trying to tell a story; she scarcely knows just why she has brought up the memories of her childhood and so there is no order. The film’s comedy comes from these scenes, such as the bizarre “period” craze that overtook Taeko’s school and her experiments with romance.

Only Yesterday is a strange beast indeed. A good deal of the time, it is unclear just how the past and the present of Taeko are linked. The device of 27 year old Taeko was Takahata’s own idea, and the film’s true story – the past is simple vignettes put together to show nostalgic feeling. Only occasionally does Takahata even attempt to bring the two together, and there are long stretches of film where one is uncertain as to where either the past or present has gone.
All is forgiven, however, at the end. Only Yesterday boasts one of the finest endings in an anime film. To watch it is just a little awe-inspiring. It’s happy, but not in a tearful way, and really quite ingeniusly done. Somehow it brings the prior two hours into perfect focus and is a plum note to leave on.

Takahata’s job of direction is generally excellent, with the present full of natural, earthy colours and the sixties muted and white. Almost no background is completely, fading to white around the edges. There is no blue sky, and the outdoor grounds are largely white as well. This is a nice visual trick to set the two eras apart. A lot of the time the ten year old Taeko spaces out into fantasy or terminally cheerful pragmatism, and these sequences are fun to behold. In other areas Takahata is slightly lacking – one conversation between Toshio and Taeko in a car is remarkably unimaginatively storyboarded, and there are two totally bizarre subliminal images: product placement and an E.T. reference that are purely what?.

Only Yesterday is a nostalgic film that is oddly paced, and a bit heavy on a environmental monologues. It would speak most to Japanese people who are now over the age of forty, but it’s a kind of delayed “coming of age” story worthy of anyone with a little patience to watch.

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