Studio Ghibli #5: Only Yesterday

One thing that becomes increasingly clear to anyone who has spent any time watching anime is that our Western understanding of animation is severely limited. While in the West, animation is usually confined to being a genre strictly for the kids and no one else, in Japan (and much of Asia) it is treated merely as an art form, perfectly capable of telling any kind of story. It is only in accepting that context that one begins to understand the special power of Isao Takahata’s masterpiece, Only Yesterday.

Where all of Studio Ghibli’s previous output was specifically directed at children (yes, even Takahata’s war-tragedy Grave of the Fireflies was apparently meant to be seen primarily by children), Only Yesterday is firmly a romantic drama aimed at the adults in the room. The story follows Taeko, a single and overworked woman in her late twenties, who decides to finally take a break from life in the busy and bustling Tokyo and spend a week working the fields of her sister’s husband’s family in rural Japan.

Away from the noise of the city, Taeko finds her mind wandering nostalgically to her childhood. But if there are revelations to her current malaise lying there, they aren’t immediately apparent. Anecdotal stories about her first experience eating pineapple, or watching a school baseball game, or her first experience acting pass through her mind seemingly at random. But that is because Taeko’s existential crisis is not a problem that has an easily discernible solution. A weaker film would draw a straight line between getting away from the busyness of Tokyo and falling in love with rural and the people (and a specific person) who live there as a solution to the problems of her life. But Takahata knows that most of our internal problems are in fact Gordian knots, that need to be teased out in indirect ways before anything resembling a solution can be found. And so he is content to let us spend this movie exploring Taeko’s past and enjoying her current forays in the present while we patiently wait for Taeko to try and name what it is that afflicts her.

As weird as it is to say out loud, a huge part of Studio Ghibli’s is becausetha two Japanese men seem to know intimately what it means to be a girl. The evidence of this runs aplenty whether in Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki’s Delivery Service, Spirited Away, and The Tale of the Princess Kaguya. But in many ways Only Yesterday represents the apex of their understanding of the complexities of what it means to be a woman in a patriarchal society as Takahata reveals the multiple layers of Taeko’s psyche with nuance and grace. When we glance back to her past, it is as much a trip through nostalgia as it is a case study of how a free-spirited girl slowly get forced into a conventional lane.

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© 1991 Studio Ghibli

It is in Taeko’s flashbacks that we see why it was important for Takahata to tell this story through animation. Takahata takes the bold choice of animating the past and the present in very different ways. In the scenes during the present, he takes a more realistic approach, mimicking facial expressions and gestures to remain as human as possible. He even took the daring risk of wanting to record the dialogue first, basing his animation on the direction the actors took rather than the other way around. He also fills the frame with a multitude of details both mundane and sublime, perfectly displaying Taeko’s experiencing self.  Meanwhile he animates the past in a more traditional way, allowing for exaggerated movement and more cartoonish behavior while framing the sequences from the past with white fuzziness around the edges, mimicking the questionable veracity of our own childhood nostalgia and thereby inadvertently perfectly illustrating the narrative self. This interplay between the initially rose-colored view of the past and the stark reality of the present quietly drives the narrative, as each dive into Taeko’s childhood slowly illuminates her present. Increasingly we are beginning to understand that in most cases, our memories are at least in part fabrications as we embellish and fill in the details of our stories not only to make our past lives more exciting but because the stories we tell shape how we understand ourselves. Takahata is able to illustrate that concept with just his simple aesthetic choice to animate the past and present in different ways.

In many ways Only Yesterday is an “adult” movie, not because it has any sort of objectionable content, but because the power of its narrative can only truly be appreciated once someone has grown old enough to have encountered a fair share of disappointments and heartbreaks. I remember watching this movie in my very early 20s where, admittedly still a little high on my dreams to change the world and ability to leave a mark on world history, I simply did not get the movie and its seemingly modest ambitions. But on revisiting it a decade or so later, it became so easy to relate to Taeko’s predicament. Taeko’s story begins at a moment when her youthful aspirations have not only been quashed, but been subtly replaced by the soul-crushing and monotonous rhythms of material success. Her trips down memory lane, while filled with nostalgia, thus also help her remember the moments when she got hemmed into the lane she currently occupies.

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© 1991 Studio Ghibli

Only Yesterday is a remarkable example of a movie adaptation enhancing the original source material. The manga comic on which the movie is based only tells episodic stories about Taeko as a ten-year old. Takahata invents the whole storyline of Taeko as 27-year old, and in so doing turns the story from being a mere melancholy nostalgic tale into a quietly powerful story of a woman shedding the ghosts of her past to change her present. With her chance for any youthful and naive aspirations of her greatness out the window, we instead have to wait and see if she will choose her happiness instead. In many ways, witnessing her quiet journey is as heartwarming as it is sobering with stakes that may be entirely internalized but are no less high – a remarkable feat for a movie that dares to tell its “adult” story through the misperceived childish medium of animation. Only Yesterday thus stands as yet another sign that Studio Ghibli’s run as an animation studio is unparalleled.

Rating: ★★★★★

Other entries:

Studio Ghibli #0: Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind
Studio Ghibli #1: Castle in the Sky
Studio Ghibli #2: Grave of the Fireflies
Studio Ghibli #3: My Neighbor Totoro
Studio Ghibli #4: Kiki’s Delivery Service

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