Within the critically acclaimed cannon of films from Japanese animation studio, Studio Ghibli, the most well known and lauded are those from director Hayao Miyazaki. Less known is the often more experimental movies of celebrated filmmaker, Isao Takahata. Of these, 1991’s Only Yesterday is a fascinating examination on memories of the past, and their impact on the future.
Set in 1982, 27-year-old single office worker Taeko Okajima is spending her vacation away from the noise of Tokyo to help harvest safflower crops in rural Yamagata. Such a pilgrimage reminds her of her 10-year-old self, who longed for the excitement of getting out of the city. During her trip she becomes close to Toshio, an earnest young man who loves his farming lifestyle. However, Taeko remembers and relives stand out moments from her childhood, such as: finding out a boy liked her, dealing with a mother who couldn’t see past her academic failings, and the time her father struck her.
For the first half of this two hour long film, the majority of the run time is taken up with flashbacks of Taeko’s childhood. With so few scenes establishing adult Taeko (she’s single, works in an office, wants to get away, etc.) you may find yourself wrong-footed as there isn’t enough to ground what her character’s motivations are beyond quick snap archetypes. But come the second half of the movie the flashbacks are contextualised by Taeko’s current experiences and are relatable to any of us who reminisce over what our juvenile selves thought we would become.
Only Yesterday is a gorgeous experiment of styles. The 1982 setting is animated with deep hues and detailed facial animation which deliberately contrasts with the washed-out colour pallet of the flashbacks. In the past, scenes literally get less and less detailed towards the edges of the frame until they are just simple sketches, masterfully mirroring how memories work. We don’t remember every detail, just the intensity of the short action or emotion behind an event. The two distinctive styles make it immediately obvious what time frame you are in at any moment.
That said, Takahata tried to capture more human facial expressions than anime typically does. Taeko’s smile or crinkled brow come and go as lines across her face, but this does age her somewhat oddly for someone who is supposed to be 27! Contrasting the realism are such moments of gorgeous near-fantasy in the past. Watching the instruction manual-like farming a flower is never going to be quite as compelling as a 10-year-old Taeko blissfully running into the sky up invisible stairs and floating home because of a conversation with an attractive boy. It’s a gift of animation that such emotively metaphorical moments can be weaved into the narrative.
Takahata’s directorial approach is much more adult and thoughtful than his more famous studio co-founder, Miyazaki. In his hands, Taeko’s very real journey is that of a girl who was worn down by distant parenting, chattering sisters, and crushed dreams until, in adulthood, she has unknowingly settled for a life unfulfilled. In telling this story, Only Yesterday’s first half feels awkward in structure. Yet, as Taeko’s world is shaken in the second half and all her relived memories crowd around her (in surely the best train scene ever animated), the beauty of such earned emotion is a triumph to experience.
Words by Michael Record