Takahata‘s career turned a major corner when he and Hayao Miyazaki formed Studio Ghibli. His 1988 film Grave of the Fireflies helped legitimize him, the studio, and the medium of anime itself as a viable and serious art form. He continued on this trend with his next movie, but it also, sadly, signified the beginning of a slow-down in his directorial output, which became exponentially more sparse as time went on. Here in North America, his 1991 film Only Yesterday is a bit of a lost classic, only just seeing release and distribution this year, even though it was the highest-grossing film in Japan that year. Animation for adults is hard to sell, it would seem.
Now, since the movie’s only just coming out in the U.S. in the coming weeks (if you don’t live in New York City, of course, where it’s been out since the beginning of January), I’m not going to get as in-depth about it as I have the others, because I frankly want people to go see them. I will, however, discuss a bit of what it does to further Takahata’s catalog, and discuss it as a gorgeous work of visual art — which it undoubtedly is. Only Yesterday features children, but it’s about remembering childhood more than celebrating it as it happens. At once presented as “the good old days” and the time to which you can’t return, childhood is seen through the lens of time instead of through the rosy glow that Miyazaki had been presenting in his films.
Only Yesterday is the story of Taeko, a 27-year-old woman in the 1980s in Japan. She’s unmarried, living in Tokyo, and not particularly enthused by anything she’s doing. She leaves to go on holiday to the country to help her sister’s husband’s relatives with their safflower harvest. As she takes the train outside the city, she begins to reminisce about herself in sixth grade, in the 1960s in the “suburbs.” The trip brings up memories in her of that pivotal year in her life, both good and bad, including puberty, first romances, math irritations, boys in general, and dreaming about the future. We spend a great deal of time with Past Taeko and her day to day life during her sixth-grade year.
At the same time, we also get to see how her wistful memories of the past and how she did or did not stay true to herself in the years that followed. When she arrives at Yamagata, Taeko is picked up by Toshio, the second cousin of her brother-in-law, a guy she barely knows. Through the course of her stay, though, Toshio begins to help her get over some of the harder parts of her past, the things she’s had a hard time letting go of, and to embrace the good things. It’s not necessary to leave all childhood things behind, but being so slavishly attached to it certainly isn’t a good thing.
Only Yesterday has a lilting, lyrical pace that beautifully befits the story. Takahata is able to make us feel what it’s like to remember, and to just exist in memories instead of there needing to be definite narrative beats. There’s an episodic nature to these things, each vignette being totally self-contained within the frame of it being Taeko’s school life. In this way, the movie is a continuation to Takahata’s Chie the Brat, a slice-of-life comedy about a girl in Japan. Unlike that one which was definitely played for laughs, not everything in Only Yesterday is meant to be funny; in fact a lot of it is tragic, or melancholy, or frustrating, or confusing, just like a real 12-year-old child might experience in her growth.
There are truly astounding moments and sequences, like when young Taeko learns that a star athlete in her school has a crush on her. She doesn’t know how to take it and runs away after school, as the other girls laugh and giggle. But the boy catches up to her as she hurries home, they have a very awkward conversation which leads to them reaching common ground. As he runs away, Taeko begins to walk and floats in the air, lost in the delight of having a boy like her. It’s a lovely little moment and one of the times Takahata allows the freedom of animation to illustrate an emotion better than live action could.
Another moment is a frustrating sequence where Taeko feels lesser than her much older sisters, and one in particular, and refuses to go on a family outing, even though she wants to go. She plops down and pouts and expects her stern father, who is always softer with her, to try to get her to go. He doesn’t though; he looks at her and just walks outside. This strikes the young Taeko as the end of something and runs outside to stop them, telling everybody she’s coming. But she leaves the house without shoes – which is a huge faux pas in the culture – and her father slaps her for it. The shatter of the slap takes Taeko out of being a little kid and into a more grown-up world, but at the expense of her innocence.
Only Yesterday is a wonderful, beautiful movie that not only makes you feel like a kid – in a profoundly grown up way – but it also furthers Takahata’s exploration into contemporary Japan, and specifically at what a woman in the ’80s had to deal with, in a way no anime had yet done. This theme of female growth in Japan would continue in Takahata’s final feature, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, though depicted through an ancient folktale. If you get the opportunity to see Only Yesterday, please take it. It’s a lovely experience, and with the new English dub featuring Daisy Ridley, Dev Patel, and Ashley Eckstein, it means more people will get the chance to see it than might have with a straight-up release. 25 years old, the film still feels incredibly prescient and timeless.
Next week we look at what is probably Takahata’s weirdest movie, and one that will need a fair amount of cultural context. It’s about magical, shape-shifting raccoon dogs (or Tanuki) attempting to save Japan from building up too many cities. And if you ever wanted to see the testicles of furry animals on display for the whole runtime of a movie, then Pom Poko is for you! [Editor’s Note: DO I EVER!]
Images: Studio Ghibli/GKIDS