Of all the Studio Ghibli canon, Only Yesterday remained one of its most lost (at least on Western shores) until 2016, when it finally received a US theatrical release after twenty-five years. Barred from much of the English-speaking world due to content concerns, watching the film makes it clear that it certainly isn’t aimed at children but for reasons quite apart from those that the distributors were worried about. Only Yesterday is a film about the sadness and sweetness of growing older and leaving your childhood by the wayside. Ghibli’s younger audience may appreciate its momentary pleasures, but it is the adults who will tear up at the bittersweet beauty of youthful reminisces.
It’s a film that chooses to play gently on the heart, whereas director Isao Takahata’s previous 1988 offering Grave of the Fireflies made a far more brutal emotional attack. It’s a sharp left turn from one of Ghibli’s most acclaimed animators—second only in renown to the great Hayao Miyazaki—and one handled with grace. He saw the opportunity for the story in a manga series chronicling the disconnected misadventures of an 11-year-old girl named Taeko, but despite the appeal in these charming vignettes, it wasn’t until he pictured them as memories that he found his emotional through line.
And so, the film was split into two parts that interweave: one observes brief chapters in young Taeko’s life; the other watches a single movement in the life of her 27-year-old self as she travels from her city home to the country, eager to help with the farm work she’s always felt drawn to. Traveling on the train brings her mind back to her childhood in ways that prove both pleasant and painful but never too dramatic. This is a quiet film, and its attempts to make itself unassuming ensure that it sticks with you all the more.
With lengthy scenes in car interiors, outside in the expanse of nature and inside the walls of a school building, many minds will wander to one question: why was this animated? One key draw to the format is that animation can allow us to see things we never thought possible, and Ghibli has always capitalized on its fantastical benefits—particularly with Miyazaki’s magical beasts. Only Yesterday has none of that, yet it does understand something else about animation; drawn images have an expressive capacity that cannot be recreated in live action. There’s an ability to isolate certain colors, images, textures, and facial movements to draw our attention to them and tell us that this is the thing in the scene that matters most. The modern day sequences are standardly—if beautifully—drawn, but it’s in the flashbacks that the animation style of Only Yesterday feels most necessary. The edges of the frame have faded into white, like an old worn photograph. These memories of Taeko’s life do not follow one straight path; they are flashes from here and there. There’s an exploration of her first crush that is quickly dropped, not because of lazy storytelling, but because our heroine’s mind has wandered elsewhere. These are snapshots, and while her past may not be as crisp as her present, there are small details that remain as strong as if they had happened only yesterday.
It’s because of this patchwork quality that Only Yesterday often loosens its grip. You will find certain vignettes less compelling than others, and that will likely differ greatly from person to person, depending on what elements of your own childhood resonates the strongest through time. But even when your interest wavers, it’s ready to be roped back in by the next gorgeously realized detail. I myself was very taken by a scene that observes young Taeko’s excitement as she sees her first ever fresh pineapple. The whole family gathers (after a lengthy period of trying to work out how to cut it open) and prepares to take their first bite. But the moment’s ecstasy gives way quickly to deafening silence when each one in turn is struck by the disappointment of the less-than-ripe pineapple’s unpleasant taste. That silence is held for longer than you might expect, and we watch as Taeko’s family renounces the fruit. Only she is left, defiant and determined to remain in denial. The disappointment stings too badly. Her insistently optimistic innocence rings through loud and true.
As a character study, Only Yesterday works so well because Taeko isn’t a character we often see on screen. As an adult, she works in a bustling city and is significantly alone. Her boss is surprised at the joy on her face at the prospect of escaping to farming country. Often, a story like this would contrast childhood innocence with a hardened, world-weary, grown-up but older Taeko who retains the sweetness of her younger self. She is a quiet, kind woman, attracted to simply joys and the serenity of nature. In short, she is very pleasant company for two hours. We, as an audience, are happy to share in her stories and reflect on our own.
What are your thoughts about Only Yesterday?
Edited by: Kelly Conley