Only Yesterday (1991)

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“To be a butterfly, a caterpillar has to become a chrysalis first, even if it never for a moment wanted to become one.”
-Taeko Okajima

 

 

From Isao Takahata, the more down-to-Earth of the Ghibli directors, comes a realistic drama that has finally seen the light of day in English. It was dubbed this year (2016) on the 25th anniversary of its original release in Japan. Yes, we had to wait 25 years to get it in the West. Only Yesterday was worth waiting for.

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Apparently Disney was sitting on the rights to the dub for years (thanks, Walt) as part of their comprehensive ownership of rights including the other films from Ghibli, only they opted not to translate the film because of its treatment of maturer themes and menstruation. Yeah. That’s in here. So let’s just get that right out of the way. It’s not like Disney should be scared off by that anyways… they’re just trying to pretend their own animated The Story of Menstruation never happened.

Thankfully, that isn’t all this movie is about. It is a wistful, pensive, thoughtful film about nostalgia, childhood, adulthood, and the spaces in between. It may be the most uneventful in all of the Ghibli canon though that does not mean you should wave it off as boring or passable. It is all the more accessible now that it has had its English dub by GKIDS and as one of the more obscure Ghibli films, you should watch it. Maybe just for bragging rights.

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Known as Omoide Poro Poro (“Memories Come Tumbling Down”) in Japanese, the original title clues us into the structure of the film. Well, Only Yesterday as the English title does, too. Both convey the sense of the bittersweet memories which fill the film. Only Yesterday jumps between two time periods in the life of Taeko Okajima: 1966 when she’s a schoolgirl in fifth grade and 1982 as an unmarried 27-year-old professional living in Tokyo. The more realistic and contoured animation defines the “present day” Taeko in ’82, whereas more manga-style, watercolored, faded animation represents the haze of memories that come to confront, haunt, and motivate the her character.

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Taeko is taking a vacation from her job in the city to go on a trip to the countryside to visit relatives and enjoy working and living as farmers do. As she rides a train through the night, memories of her childhood begin to flood her mind and she sees her younger self and old classmates playing around her. She remembers old friends in school, her earliest feelings for a boy, the awkwardness of puberty, dealing with family life, parents, and siblings, handling disappointments, being reprimanded, tackling schoolwork. She talks her way through the memories almost as a way of dealing with them one by one, a kind of self-therapy, trying to make sense of them.

At first Taeko is confused by the sudden rush of memory as she heads deeper into the country beside Toshio, her brother-in-law’s second cousin who comes to pick her up from the station. Eventually the scenes from her past begin to make sense and help her understand what she is doing with her life and what she wants to do in her future: become the woman she really always has been but has never been able to be.

In the countryside, she picks safflowers beside the other farmers in order to harvest the petals for the rouge they produce. She considers that in the past, poor girls who harvested the flowers couldn’t partake of the vivid color they were producing because of their poverty. She also learns that the countryside and farming life are not to be romanticized. The countryside is not truly “untouched nature” as everything she sees is the result of mankind living in harmony with nature and affecting it. So too, farming life is far from a breeze. It’s hard work with many disappointments and many grievances. She learns this quickly while planting rice by hand. There’s a thematic juxtaposition there between a non-romanticized reality in the countryside and the fleeting expectations of childhood. Her trip to the country is a catalyst which matures her and her perspective on life.

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Only Yesterday is about remembering and realizing childhood dreams, growing up and continuing to grow up into the person that Taeko wants to be. So often in her past as the youngest in her family and sort of the black sheep, she was forced to accept things the way they were: the will of her parents, hand-me-downs, her place as youngest of three sisters. She is almost paralyzed by the ability to choose who she wants to become. This is what forms the core of the film’s complicated characterization of its lead, really getting into her head.

Though the film is an adaptation of a manga of the same name by Hotaru Okamoto and Yuko Tone, the heavy reliance on flashback was an innovation for the film. The adult Taeko was invented to serve as a frame for setting the individual scenes and vignettes of childhood Taeko into. Thus adult and adolescent Taeko together form a comprehensive and coherent movie rather than being just a series of unrelated moments from her childhood.

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Most directors would shiver at the thought of a film founded almost entirely on flashbacks, but Takahata owns it. Who cares if it slows the narrative down to a barely discernible crawl? I mean, really slow. There’s a snail in one scene and I think it may have been moving faster than this movie. But who cares? It’s gorgeous to look at. It’s a slow moving painting. There are moments in this movie which are so realistic yet transcendently beautiful, images of safflowers with dew on their leaves. There’s an unforgettable scene where the light of dawn slowly builds in the sky as the farmer’s stand among the golden safflowers taking in the scene as much in awe as the audience. Animating a sunrise over a mountain seems quaint on paper but it turns out to be one of the most breathtaking (literally) sequences I’ve ever seen in animation.

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Other moments almost seem like snapshots where characters remain stock still like statues or caricatures rather than moving pictures. The cast stares at each other, past each other, or inside of themselves with careful, crushing thought. Only animators with a true sense of the value of beauty in simplicity could have crafted a film that takes so much time to observe everything, reflect upon everything, and appreciate the tiniest detail.

Only Yesterday was a new vantage point on anime and what it could be. It was almost revolutionary at the time to think that an anime film could be this realistic. Compared to the often fantastical worlds of Hayao Miyazaki, for example, Takahata’s artistic vision of our own world seems like hyper-realism.

I think Only Yesterday works when it shouldn’t. I wasn’t expecting much from it but I’ve not been able to dismiss it out of mind. Considering its sluggish narrative, flashbacks, and drawn out conversation, Only Yesterday works because we are Taeko.

The film may have originally been marketed to women but its box office success and wide critical acclaim has demonstrated that it crosses boundaries of gender. Even boundaries of culture and language, now. Like Taeko, we’ve all yearned for something more in life but been too afraid to do something about it without even knowing it! In this sense, Only Yesterday reminded me of another classic: It’s A Wonderful Life. The similarities are interesting though the contrasts are as well. Only Yesterday is It’s A Wonderful Life without Christmas, the metaphysical, and attempted suicide.

But like Taeko, and like George Bailey, we’ve all tried to untangle our own histories and make sense of them, sometimes successfully and sometimes with failure. Taeko handles hers with introspection while George meets his with despair. It’s relatable. We’ve all felt the tug for personal courage to find satisfaction in life. We’ve all had to try to understand what it is we really want. We’ve had to assess our happiness. We’ve had to ponder on the passage of time. We’ve all felt what it is like to be trapped, persecuted, haunted, belittled, betrayed, shunned, scolded and rejected.

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This is a quietly reflective movie which inspires reflection on why we are the way we are and where we’re each going and why. Lofty aims, yet Only Yesterday does this with unmatched simplicity and directness, with a grace all its own.

Studio Ghibli is erroneously considered to be a family film animation studio, like Disney. They’re not. Their works touch on the family film genre because their works are versatile. This is a film to be appreciated by adults, without being graphic, gross, or gory. One of the most realistic of the Ghibli films, Only Yesterday is the most human.

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The 8-bit Review
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Visuals: 9/10
Only Yesterday wonderfully and efficiently distinguishes between 1982 and 1966. There are far too many flashbacks to make sensible use of cutaways or transitions like ye olde cheesy water-effect. Furthermore, the cuts between past and present are so quick sometimes that the present can finish the sentence remembered out of the past. Instead, the past is shown with diffused light on shadowless, more traditionally anime-ish characters living in watercolor cells while the present maintains its shaded, articulated realism. The differences make the past seem light and humorous, filled with the cartoonish daydreams of a little girl which underscore the more painful memories, while the grounded reality of the present is full of conversations and work, the stuff of adults.

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Two dramatically different animation styles could have been another reason why this project derailed but they fit together nicely and the transitions are rarely upsetting to the eye. In this manner, the film can immediately inform the audience without narration of any kind what era we’re seeing

The approach taken for the realism of the present is unique and you can see it right away. Conscious attention was paid by the animators to making characters in the present have more expressive and articulated faces than is generally illustrated in anime. Japanese animation is dominated by large eyes, tiny mouths, and even tinier noses but here that’s only present in the hazy mists of the past. It’s even played up to comical effect there when little Taeko fantasizes about grandeur and her eyes take on manga proportions.

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Extra effort seems to have been taken on facial expression and human mannerism. Notably, Taeko’s cheeks curl up whenever she smiles. Her nose wrinkles when she laughs and she shakes and lilts her head when talking. It’s far more than we’re accustomed to seeing from anime. It may actually seem like too much. The cheek lines make her face seem wrinkled, even. You can see why this new rendition of the human face didn’t exactly catch on. Apparently this approach was impressed upon the film because of the fact of the dialogue being recorded before the animation was completed, contrary to the usual development process in anime.

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Thus far in just the Ghibli films, we’ve seen a lot of countryside. My Neighbor Totoro takes place entirely in a rural setting and even Kiki’s Delivery Service included some countryside at the beginning of the film. Only Yesterday spends a great deal of time outside of Tokyo in the green, lush hills and forests and farmlands bright with flowers. These are some of the most beautiful that Ghibli has ever animated, and that’s really saying something. Even if the story and pace fail to captivate you, I want you to appreciate the level of artistry that went into this film.

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Scenes like this one above would occupy the “establishing shot” or serve as a transition in other films. In Only Yesterday, scenery like this is the meat of the film.

audio1 Audio: 8/10

This is an example of a strange soundtrack used to good effect. Besides for the melodramatic tinkling of the ivories to accent the thoughtfulness of Only Yesterday, there is also a significant portion of East European music here. It sounds markedly odd seeing the very Japanese surroundings as Taeko heads into the country and hearing some very un-Japanese sounds at the same time. Bulgarian, Hungarian and Romanian folk music takes the place of a more predictable score.

It’s here because Toshio enjoys listening to the stuff. I feel like it’s an acquired taste? I wouldn’t necessarily listen to some folkish fiddling or vibradoing soloist like Toshio, but in Only Yesterday I think the music makes a statement. I’m not sure but maybe it symbolizes the strangeness of the foreign countryside and Taeko’s own unsettled feelings. I’ve been told that the lyrics of these songs are about marriage.

Oh yeah and there’s this: a song which plays on an old kids TV show.

Only Yesterday ends with “Ai wa Hana, Kimi wa sono Tane” (“Love is a flower, you are its seed”) which is a Japanese version of “The Rose”. It’s a delicate song to conclude a delicate film triumphantly.

narrative Narrative: 9/10
If you’d like to avoid SPOILERS for this film, please Ctrl+f Family Friendliness to skip both the Narrative and Themes portions of this review.

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As the story plods along and Taeko spends her time in the country, she reflects in different ways upon the things she experienced in the past as a child and strains to understand what her younger self is trying to force her to understand. The memories range from pleasant and silly (remembering how she ad-libbed in a school play) to disappointing (eating and disliking fresh pineapple) to sad (remembering a poor, filthy classmate nobody wanted to shake hands with) to downright hurtful (being struck by her father across the cheek).

That last one is one of the most intense moments in the film, if only because most of the movie isn’t intense at all. Seeing a child being struck in the face is hard to watch and the music pulls back to accentuate the moment. It’s a powerful memory, the hardest in the movie to forget about.

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It is clear as the story progresses that Taeko and Toshio are beginning to develop a relationship. He obviously takes a liking to her, taking her out to a retreat at a temple, inviting her back for winter skiing. He represents what Taeko doesn’t have, a romantic partner, though she must wrestle with her own sensibilities on whether she will reach out for him or not.

Before she is set to leave, she is asked if she would stay and marry Toshio by the farmer’s grandmother. Taeko is embarrassed and runs off, only to be found by an unknowing Toshio. They talk about a memory which reminds Taeko, appropriately, about how people can hide their true feelings and make pretend, fooling perhaps even themselves.

I think the lyrics to “The Rose” are the fitting end to this part of Taeko’s story, when she is headed home to the city filled with her doubts and second-guessing, when the memory of her younger self takes her by the arm and she decides to turn back and begin a new life with Toshio in the countryside, hopeful, adventures, romantic, different, the daring step toward something she’s always wanted.

Its the heart afraid of breaking, that never learns to dance
Its the dream afraid of waking, that never takes a chance
Its the one that won’t be taking, that cannot seem to give
It’s the one afraid of dying, that never learns to live

The first time I watched Only Yesterday, I broke down into tears when the ending credits and the song played. That’s odd considering the song was in Japanese and I certainly didn’t know the lyrics by heart. It was enough that the film conveyed such a wash of emotion that it overcame me. In retrospect, it all sounds a little too sentimental but I think the ending credits are the climax of the film.

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message Themes: 10/10
There are many parallels between little Taeko and adult Taeko which explain how she came to be the person that she is in 1982. I feel like seeing the film for a third and fourth time would be helpful in plumbing all of the depths of character and the themes in this movie.

Taeko pretends to enjoy eating pineapple because she doesn’t want to seem disappointed in front of her family and not enjoy the experience herself. Taeko isn’t allowed to perform on stage when a recruiter comes by the home because her father sternly says “no show business” (although it’s like no business I know). Taeko is teased by the boys when she begins to develop and learn about that time of the month in school, embarrassed to sit out on P.E. next to a girl on her period. Taeko gets horrible grades in math because she can’t understand fractions. Taeko overhears her mother saying of her that she is not a normal kid. Taeko runs into the boy who has a crush on her and is asked if she likes cloudy days or sunny days.

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“If today is bad, tomorrow will be better. If tomorrow is bad, then try a little bit harder.”

All of these moments seem independent of each other until they play into the choices and desires adult Taeko is confronted with. One primary theme of the movie that cannot be overlooked is symbolized by one of Taeko’s internal narrations as a butterfly.

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The butterfly starts life as a caterpillar and is forced to enter into a chrysalis whether it wants to or not in order to change. Taeko wonders if she is entering her own chrysalis again as an adult, but what will she become when she comes out the other side. Or more importantly, does she even want to change?

The thematic image comes full circle when, at the end of the film, Taeko decides to go back to the country for Toshio and a single butterfly is seen floating past.

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familyfriendliness Family Friendliness: 4/10
A film can be unsuitable for younger members of the family even though there’s no nudity, profanity, violence, or the like. Only Yesterday’s themes are about maturity and it is a very ponderous movie. I don’t know which would happen first, whether the film’s themes would fly over your kid’s head or if they’d just get bored and walk away. There are many Ghibli films better suited for the family film genre than Only Yesterday.

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cast Cast: 4/10
On to the cast which was newly assembled for the GKIDS English dub.

Daisy Ridley of recent Star Wars fame played the voice of Taeko Okajima. Even though it had been a handful of years since I’d seen the Japanese version, I knew right away that Ridley’s voice was lower and less warm than the original. It’s not that dubs need to be stringently judged by how much they adhere to the original language or not, in my opinion. It’s a matter of whether the dubbed voices accurately capture the character. In Taeko’s case, I don’t think she quite pulled it off. Not only does she sound notably colder than we actually see Taeko behaving as a smiling adult but her unique accent as well gets in the way. She wavers between a heavy and a light British accent throughout the movie and it can occasionally be distracting, especially since little Taeko (played by Alson Fernandez) sounds nothing like the woman she would later become. Fernandez does fine as young Taeko but unfortunately, though she did a good job pairing her voice to Taeko’s mannerisms, Ridley doesn’t seem to have been the best casting choice.

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Then there’s Dev Patel as Toshio. His accent is even more pronounced than Ridley’s, so much so that I thought he was a New Zealander rock star when I first heard his character speak. He is also a British actor and perhaps they thought the particular accent he could put on would be representative of Toshio’s country roots. Problem is nobody else in the country sounds even remotely like Toshio in this dub so it just comes off as unwarranted. Both Taeko and Toshio share some lengthy dialogue with each other and it’s a shame how easy it is to check out of their conversations because of their performances.

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Each of the other characters in the film were pretty much minor characters. Only Yesterday rests on Taeko, young and adult, and Toshio. The minor characters’ voices sounded alright by me. This is therefore not the strongest Ghibli dub. Even though I’m happy to watch it in my own native language, this is one that I’d recommend watching in subtitles first.

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unique Uniqueness: 9/10
Only Yesterday is uniquely beautiful. It tackles concepts virtually unheard of in the previous context of anime. It has a distinct visual and narrative structure with its heavy reliance upon flashbacks and it has a tone that is multifaceted through the film’s run. It was the first Ghibli film set in normal, ordinary, regular times and it is the most realistic in their entire canon. It’s hard not to be moved by it even though its themes and its presentation can be baffling and sometimes off-putting. In the end it’s a memorable film about memories.

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my personal grade My Personal Grade: 8/10
Long considered to be the “lost” Studio Ghibli film, Only Yesterday has finally received its English dub. Even if that dub turns out to be poorly cast, the story and the themes shine through the impressive visuals. I can definitely recommend this one for those die-hard Ghibli fans that have seen all the other big names. Compared with them, Only Yesterday is a small, quiet, personal movie. Because of that it has the capacity to reach out and touch the audience in a unique way.

I greatly enjoyed watching this movie even though parts of it are slow or embarrassing or difficult to watch. Is it the lost masterpiece some have hailed it as? Maybe you should see it for yourself to judge. As for me, I’ll simply say that it is unforgettable.

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Aggregated Score: 7.6

 

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15 thoughts on “Only Yesterday (1991)

  1. Pingback: Pom Poko (1994) |
  2. That image with Taeko on the train with her younger version and all other kids around her is incredibly beautiful and perfectly sums up what the movie is about.

    Only Yersterday is one of my least favorite Ghibli movies. I do see its beauty and the points it was trying to make, and at some points it does work for me, but through most oft he movie I am just too overwhelmed by how slow and uneventful it is. Maybe I should give it another shot, though!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I can definitely understand that. I’ve seen it three times now and some of the conversations between Taeko and Toshio are very boring. It’s not my favorite Ghibli film either but I can appreciate its depth of character for the lead and its beauty, just like you. Maybe give it another shot if you’ve yet to see the English dub?

      Liked by 1 person

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