Unsentimental, sparse, and deeply personal, the “new” Studio Ghibli film Only Yesterday is a treat for all souls. This anime from writer-director Isao Takahata (Grave of the Fireflies, Tale of the Princess Kaguya) was released in Japan in 1991, but aside from a brief theatrical run that same year, it has not been available in North America for over two decades, until this year. Darting back and forth between a young woman’s exciting youth and stagnating adulthood, it is alive to the banalities of life, the long pauses, the quiet moments.
In 1982, Taeko (Daisy Ridley in the new English dub) is 27, unmarried, and living a quiet non-existence in Tokyo. Wanting to rekindle some spark in herself, she takes a holiday in the Japanese countryside. On the train-ride there, she reminisces about her fifth-grade self in 1966, her “awakening” year. It was the year the Beatles came to Japan. Miniskirts and electric-guitar-boy-bands were all the rage. And it was the year Taeko first learned about boys, periods, pineapples, and patriarchy. Now, age 27 and worried she’ll be forever alone, she starts romancing a local organic farmer named Toshio (Dev Patel in the English dub). But the hesitant and jittery Taeko wonders whether she’ll be able to overcome her fears of her past to look on to the present and the unknown future.
Among the Studio Ghibli directors, Takahata is much more grounded in humdrum reality, much less prone to spectacle. Takahata’s films feel almost too real with their harsh, unrelenting views on people and their inherently selfish motivations. At points, his coldness can become Goya-like—a black-bleak-empty transitional gap in Takeo’s mind recalling the Black Paintings, Setsuko and Seita gazing up like Francisco’s Dog towards a God-less sky. Despite the chilling effect of his aesthetic, his films reassure us in the end. It’s their air of most closely capturing reality in sketch-paper form. Animation encourages the artist to free his or her mind, granting them the special power to represent anything and everything with a stroke of a colored pencil. Takahata takes an opposite trajectory. He works exclusively in the quotidian zone, taking great pains to make sure his films registers with the proper true-to-life force.
The movie gains its haunting memorability by imagining itself as one long, languid memory. The unfinished look of Takahata’s scraggly drawing-flicks—as if someone had accidentally released the preliminary sketches instead of the final, polished product—enhance their termite honesty. Often, Taeko won’t remember the exact details of a scene, so it looks often empty and half-formed. Thus, we burrow into the mind of Taeko, whose imperfect memory allows us a way to reflect upon our own past desires.
Other characters, too, seem affected by this peculiar perspectival filmmaking. Takahata’s obsession with stern parents (an aunt who chooses Empire over Empathy in Fireflies, an opportunist dad exploiting his daughter in Kaguya) finds a delicate nuance in Only Yesterday. Taeko’s mother doesn’t say a single kind word to her. Willing to drop Taeko like a hot rock, and simply because Taeko (like all of us) struggled with arithmetic, Mom openly called Taeko “special” to her husband and elder daughters. Her father—a man of many faces and moods—is even harder to pin down. All at once, he’s an emotionless gargoyle; a hip cool papa who prefers Taeko over his other daughters; a violent, mercurial man who snaps and hits Little Taeko for stepping outside the house without shoes; and an untrusting patriarch who stifles his daughter’s creativity and independence. He is generally stern-faced, but beyond that, we can’t exactly understand why he acts the way he does in any given situation. Taeko’s soupy memory means characters have uneven, unclear ways of acting. This, in turn, is a sign of the film’s winning commitment to the POV-1st-perspective conceit. We become totally one with Taeko’s psychology.
But it wouldn’t be enough to simply identify with Taeko; bits of our own lives merge with hers in powerful ways. The most accomplished scenes are those of Taeko’s past, where we’re taken through the embarrassment of first crushes and first periods. Little Taeko aspires to be popular, else the other kids at school judge her. She craves an enamel purse—but it must be brand-spanking-new. She doesn’t understand math and her family throws a hissy fit; she excels at English and theater, but Mom couldn’t care less. These memories aren’t just cute; they’re profoundly sad. (This, certainly, is helped by Katz Hoshi’s minimalist piano —ranking alongside Spirited Away and Grave of the Fireflies as one of Ghibli’s most emotionally affecting soundtracks.) The best scenes—the ones whose worlds we strive to stay in—are the ones from her sunny-kiddie past. Conversely, the scenes which, mired in their own muck for long stretches of time, we want to escape from are those of present-day Taeko. And this is Taeko’s struggle: she doesn’t want to live her life knowing the only worthwhile or interesting things about her happened decades ago.
Watching the movie is like feeling time slipping away like sand through a sieve. Everything here is caught between fading shots, ephemeral animated cels, blurring. Takahata’s sketch-style—frenetically peppered with striking pencil-strokes and Pollock-y energy—has an unusual calm in Only Yesterday. His frames move in scratched-CD-time. The background of any given scene is fixed in place, and the important players will move about at irregular speeds. Making their way down a hallway, discussing their periods, Taeko and her little friend seem to jog along an infinite treadmill, paying no attention to the frozen world around them. This conveyor-belt-time personifies our inability to slow time down as we live it. As we mature, we find we can’t appreciate the present until it has already become the past.
Takahata boldly addresses the “boring” parts of life that no filmmaker dares spend time covering. It is littered with parts that don’t seem essential to the narrative, but which are essential for a more nuanced understanding of life’s doldrums. A languid, surface-boring montage on saffron-picking. A boy in Taeko’s class who hates milk trades with Taeko who hates pickled onions. Endless lectures on organic farming from the Japanese country-boy. A breathtakingly ritualized carving of an imported pineapple—a simple act made fresh, exciting, weird. Only Yesterday focuses its attention on these moments with the same breath-taking interest as the scenes of Taeko’s crush and the romance with the farmer—the conventional “story scenes.” In the words of critic Manny Farber, it is “termite art” of the highest caliber: films of “buglike immersion”, films which “concentrate on nailing down one moment without glamorizing it.” Each part melts into the next, card-shuffle-fashion, forgetting its mini-scene-accomplishments (documentary realism to depiction of family life, awkwardness of first periods, proto-feminist depiction of a stifling Setsuko) as soon as the scene has passed. By not calling attention to itself, by not being aware of what it’s doing at any point, it becomes stronger in our eyes. Somehow, the plateau-like lulls in our life become charged with vivacity and vividness.
I live for films like Only Yesterday. Every once in awhile, when I discover a film like it, I’m floored and flabbergasted and moved to tears without knowing why. This feeling of the unknown in an art-piece is both humbling and life-affirming. As I stood drenched in the El Niño torrents gusting outside the Aquarius Theater, shivering and looking around at all the late-night party-goers shuffling in to Pizza My Heart and Subway, I started to think: “How did I get here? Who am I? What would 10-year-old me, then, think of 20-year-old me, now?” Like Taeko, I had a sudden epiphany that I was not the same person I once was, and won’t be the same person I am now. It fills me with wonder and dread to imagine who I will become, but it’s a pleasant mystery.
Like Taeko, I am frightened and awestruck to think how the next chapter of my life will be written. I also fear I will end up like Taeko, a tragic character who bears her past like heavy baggage everywhere she goes, unable to find a person to complete her, worrying what the next years of her life will be. That hits right at home. Only Yesterday hits right at home.
The Roxie Theater in San Francisco is hosting a retrospective of Takahata’s Ghibli works: Grave of the Fireflies, Pom Poko, My Neighbors the Yamadas, and, of course, Only Yesterday. For more information, view their schedule here.