Growing up can be a challenge, but sometimes the bigger challenge is actually being a grown up. When you’re a child, your future is tomorrow, the day after and maybe at a push, the next month. Yet, as you grow older time seems to pass faster and faster and before you know it you’re a grown person, with a home, a job and it becomes increasingly easy to spend more and more time reminiscing about your childhood and what events in your life truly made you, you.
In times gone by the past didn’t seem quite so far away, but things have started to change and in the early 1980s fuelled by an economic boom, the past in Japan seemed like an entirely different way of life. This is especially true for Taeko, the lead protagonist in Only Yesterday. As a grown adult, doing the usual things, working too hard, not having time for a love life and sadly being a disappointment to her mother, Taeko’s 1960’s childhood feels like a long time ago.
Takeo decides to visit her elder sister’s husband’s elder brother’s farm and not for the first time. While on the night train to her two week holiday, she remembers her 10 year old self and the intense desire to go to the country. This sets the wheels in motion for a feature length film around bittersweet memories.
After arriving in Yamagata she’s picked up by her brother in law’s second cousin, Toshio, someone she’s only met briefly before. During Taeko’s stay in Yagata, many childhood stories are told and not all of the memories that she’s retelling are happy. The film switches between the present and the past with such regular ease that sometimes you feel like you’re watching two tales – the one of a child who’s having the same struggles as all of us – the opposite gender, school, parents and siblings and a tale of a woman who’s just not happy but isn’t prepared to recognise it.
The contrast between Tokyo in Takeo’s childhood and Yagata in her adult life is so profound that it’s like she’s stepped back in time. The manual labour exhibited on the organic farm hails back to the 1960s of her childhood and a simpler time, with less stress and more time spent on family and fun. As Taeko starts to recognise that she loves the place she’s found herself in, her childhood self appears more frequently.
Unlike many classic tales from Miyazaki, which tells of the mystery of Japanese folklore and increasingly worldwide folklore, Isao Takahata directs and writes increasingly Japanese tales and ones that are set very firmly in the “real world”. Only Yesterday is not a magical, fantastical tale telling of how a child can overcome anything, it’s a work of reminiscence and it pulls at the heartstrings of your youth with such a firm tug that you’re left feeling warm and yet, wanting to escape.
It’s a tale of whimsy, yet hard truth. A truth that many watchers, both man and woman will find hard to come to terms with. Evaluating your life and trying to change direction is something many of us would love to do, but we just can’t – which is why you’re left feeling warm and yet wanting to run. It’s certainly not a film for children, in the main, I think children would find this film at best mildly interesting. As an adult with the weight of the world on your shoulders, Only Yesterday is a delight.
Unlike a lot of Ghibli film, Only Yesterday’s animation takes a different approach. It splits the anime style many of us are used to – big eyes and bright colours and a more realistic approach. The split is used to highlight childhood innocence and colour, with the larger eye approach in the 1960s and the older, more refined style for the present day. Both suit the film very well and both retain the unique Japanese feel that well crafted anime has.
Aside from the fact that it has a split approach, the animation quality of the rain, the fields, Taeko exercising as a child, it’s all great and would look even better in high definition – when and if it eventually reaches our shores.
There is no dub available for Only Yesterday, it’s a subtitle only feature in the United Kingdom and musically it’s a treat. There are plenty of references to Japanese songs that naturally, only those with detailed knowledge of Japan in the ‘60s will understand, but the feel of the songs lends itself tremendously to the film’s reminiscing and the folk songs sung make the Yagata present feel so much better than the Tokyo present.
Underrated, understated and beautiful. The true power of memory is shown displayed in Only Yesterday.