Posted by: asianfilmreviews | July 6, 2009

Only Yesterday (1991)

Only YesterdayOnly Yesterdayおもひでぽろぽろ

Director: Isao Takahata (高畑 勲)

Voice Cast: Miki Imai (今井 美樹), Toshio Yanagiba (柳葉 敏郎), Yoko Honna (本名 陽子)

I am extremely happy that my first review for an animated film is the astounding Only Yesterday, from master director Isao Takahata (Grave of the Fireflies火垂るの墓). I’ve been a fan of Takahata’s work since first watching Grave of the Fireflies years ago and crying my eyes out when it was over. BEFORE it was over. Yes, I cried. The level of humanity with which he approaches his films is a welcome relief from the glut of  animation in general, where filmmakers seem to regard their products as Saturday morning fodder amidst a sea of competing mediocrity. With Only Yesterday, Takahata has painstakingly painted a picture of one young woman’s transition to adulthood, where she reflects on her formative years as a child and discovers who she really is. And he has done so with such care and such grace that it’s hard not to admire the film. The beautifully conceived ending, rousing in its emotionality and unfettered idealism, only seals the deal.

Taeko is a 27 year old Tokyo resident with a remarkably unremarkable life. She is unmarried and has a stable job, and that’s literally about it. However, things change when she makes plans to visit family in-laws in the countryside of Yamagata prefecture to assist in harvesting benibana (flowers used in various dyes). This single event brings up memories of her childhood (specifically her time in the 5th grade), beginning with her desire as a young girl to vacation outside of Tokyo – an event which mirrors her present day decision to temporarily leave the city. Following that, the memories come flooding back to her, and we are treated to her childhood experiences involving puberty, her first love, academic problems, and her desire to act to name but a few. As she reaches her destination in Yamagata and is reunited with her childhood friend Toshio, we realize that her memories are no mere flashbacks, but are instead a narrative tool used as a means for us to become intimately familiar with this character, both as a child and as an adult, in order to see her at two separate stages in her life for the purpose of her development. As it stands until the end of the film, for all the reflecting she does on her childhood, she has never really grown and remains a child at heart.

It is at this point that I would like to bring up one of the more common misconceptions in film – the misconception that animation is a genre. Well, it is not. Animation is a style of filmmaking, no different than expressionism or rotoscoping. A film genre by definition would dictate that films lumped in a certain category share common thematic material and character types. But I would dare anyone to put My Little Pony into the same genre as Satoshi Kon’s Perfect Blue. Animation is a style, a method by which to tell a story, and Takahata uses it here in some exceptionally creative ways. Take a look at the following scene:

People no doubt feel different things when they fall in love, but there is a certain sense of accomplishment, of having found someone and made a special connection. Takahata’s use of animation to showcase young Taeko’s subjective state has her climbing a staircase to the heavens and then flying away before reappearing in bed, at which point the film transitions to Taeko as an adult, reliving the singular event where she fell in love with the school’s star baseball player. This allows us to actually see how she was affected by her infatuation in a most cinematic manner and in such a way that can only be accomplished via animation (or accomplished best via animation). Although the film never reaches this level of mental subjectivity in subsequent scenes, it is enough to show the versatility of animation as a style of filmmaking and allow us a greater glimpse into Taeko’s mind.

What is curious about the above scene, however, is that Taeko’s reaction could be interpreted in two ways: she either looks back on her crush as nothing more than idle fancy as she laughs at the silliness of it or she’s reliving the good feeling that it brought her. Either way, she remains firmly rooted in the past without having transitioned to adulthood. And herein lies the heart of Taeko’s character and singularly disproves the animation as a genre idea. She looks back on her life as a child and the multitude of personal issues she dealt with, but the reality is that she has not yet grown, has not yet learned, and indeed has not yet been true to herself. This is not about Taeko devaluing her childhood, but discovering herself through her childhood. Throughout most of her life, Taeko was defined by others and persuaded by popular opinion, such as when she developed a taste for extravagant desires (acting and the latest fashions) and showed an inability to grasp concepts in math, which prompted her sisters to suspect her as “abnormal.” Furthermore, as her friend Toshio says, she does not know herself. Now, when faced with a life-altering decision in the countryside, far from her confines in Tokyo, Taeko’s childhood memories take on another role, as that of a guide or motivating force. This relationship she develops with her past self leads to an absolutely phenomenal conclusion that must be experienced. Think The Shawshank Redemption. Yes, it’s that good.

The most engaging films are those that are able to touch the audience on a very personal level with characters that are very believable (in an emotional sense, at least) and very much like ourselves. This is one of the many reasons why Only Yesterday is such a joy to watch. Other reasons include the fantastic music (is it me, or does Studio Ghibli employ the best film composers?) and voice-cast, excellent pacing and attention to story, and absolutely top-notch animation. This is a first rate film that proves to be extremely relatable and accessible, and anyone who feels far removed from their childhood will no doubt think back on their younger years and wonder if they too made the right decisions and stayed true to their own ambitions.

I’ll leave you with another clip from the film in which Taeko arrives in Yamagata and is introduced to a new lifestyle. This is notable not just for the beautiful animation, but it also happens to be a fine example of the often presentational style found in Japanese cinema. Happy watching!


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