Director: Isao Takahata
Starring: Miki Imai, Toshiro Yanagiba, Yoko Honna
At the time of Only Yesterday’s completion, anime in the States was only recognized so much, particularly in Miyazaki’s more childlike films. Therefore, given the maturely level of Isao Takahata’s film, it didn’t see the light of an American release, complete with full dubbing, until 2016. This is an achievement that should be appreciated, as this is a film in which audiences can draw connections to from all over the globe, one that proves that animated films can be made for adults, complete with memories of childhood and adolescence both warm and cold. Comparisons to the films of Yasujiro Ozu are sincerely warranted, as his live-action films explore the similar pressures of the day-to-day in both urban and rural Japan.
Taeko Okajima is a woman living a busy yet undemanding working lifestyle in Tokyo, and she decides to visit some distant family in the countryside. Like Nomiko Somiya from Ozu’s Late Spring, she is twenty-seven and single, yet in no rush to comply to the mainstream standards of marital living. What makes this film truly detached from Ozu’s however, is its presentation and methods of creating the three-dimensional character. Like most people, when watching the landscapes pass by from the view of a train window, Taeko’s mind begins to wander, and where better to wander than to that of one’s childhood? We see this, oftentimes with a fog on the lower corners of the screen to emphasize the fogginess of memories. We visit a younger and more wide-eyed Taeko, and with her experience the joys and hardships of her girlhood.
The film cuts back and forth, slowly but surely developing plot in both time periods and stringing together the woman we know as Taeko Okajima. In the present (1982) she meets and shyly falls for a safflower farmer and is uncertain how to handle it. The past displays a series of conflicts, including academic struggles, the discomforts of adolescence, and tensions that cannot be described but felt through the visual medium, tensions between Taeko and her friends, love interests, and family members. Isao Takahata, more famous for Grave of the Fireflies, has a talent for giving people empathetic feelings toward drawings.
Only Yesterday captures not only the joyousness in growing up, but also the sheer pain in ways that many films only aspire to, the more recent Moonlight is the only rivaling film that comes to mind. It properly juxtaposes the mannerisms and attitude, thoughts, memories and even regrets of the adult and child Taeko. Told through animation, it was by no means hindered by weak child performances or faulty anachronisms when set in the past. There is the occasional cross-over between past and present timelines to show us that the past itself is never dead. It, like the characters of Only Yesterday, lingers and makes its mark and influence on us all.
This film, like most, is imperfect. Some of the cuts between time are abrupt and undesired, and as a result can be jarring and a bit annoying. Some of the younger Taeko’s mental digressions into fantasy give are exaggerations and feel out of place in a film so set within realism. A few of the vignettes in the past don’t seem properly justified in shaping our heroine and can be perceived as pointless, while other subplots drag on for too long until the point wears thin.
Regarding the anime medium, many individuals only think about that of Miyazaki’s spiritual visions, or the heavily ambitious explorations of films like Ghost in the Shell or Paprika. What Only Yesterday accomplishes however, is a cheerful simplicity—a slice-of-life story that anybody with a past can relate to. In the end, this film is about finding a personal peacefulness with who you are and how the world has shaped you. No matter the visual presentation, I wish there were more films like this one.