Only Yesterday (1991)

When to the session of sweet silent thought,
I summon up remembrance of things past,

I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,
And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste….

 

Director: Isao Takahata
Screenplay: Isao Takahata

Only Yesterday dances between the present and past of the life of Taeko. Which path she will eventually take at the end of the film slowly reveals itself.

As a 27 year old adult, Taeko has never lived outside of Osaka. The film begins with her at work in a typical office shortly before taking a train to the rural countryside to help her family with the yearly harvest. She reminisces as lost memories trickle back in her mind on the train journey there. It is clear that she is suited for the rural life more suited to her and is even offered a hand in marriage to a family friend.

As a child Taeko pines to visit the countryside like the other children but her parents have no relatives to visit outside of the city. While her friends explore outside Osaka, Taeko instead spends the summer in city spas (onsens), something that is meant for adults and not girls of her age.

Bad at maths and with a flair for the creative, her passion for dramatics in lieu of mathematics troubles her father. In general, her family struggles to understand her and finds her academically slow rather than creatively gifted. There’s a visible conflict in these flashbacks as young Taeko tries to stretch her wings.

As crows pass overhead, adult Taeko recounts the time she was offered a part in her school play. With only the small part of village child #1 she recounts how she made the most of it. Child Taeko says her line “Oh, the crows are returning home” pointing in dramatic fashion and pausing as the crows fly overhead to wave them goodbye, turning a moment that would have felt fleeting into a significant event. Like the passing crows, many of Taeko’s recollections are fleeting and feel inconsequential but have become impactful, pausing in her mind with poignancy.

 

Screenshot (14)Oh, the crows are returning home….

This film is directed by Isao Takahata. Only Yesterday has his fingerprints all over it, with the animation (set in the 80s) being more realistic, such as the animated facial muscles created by having the voice actors record their lines before the animation. In comparison scenes where Taeko is younger, the animation in facial expressions is less detailed, and the characters themselves have an air of innocence to them that’s captured in the ‘Ma’ of detail. An absence of expression arguably symbolises the ‘be anything you want to be’ idealistic mantra of youth.

Only Yesterday is based on the manga Omohide Poroporo by Hotaru Okamoto and Yuko Tone a story centered around adventures and events in the author’s life, some of which may seem disturbing. One event, in particular, was Taeko being struck by her father.

Only Yesterday’s nostalgia is multilayered. Because of the timeframes around its settings we are given flashbacks to a time that might seem bizarre or outdated. For example, when Taeko’s family buy a pineapple – in 1966 most families were only ever introduced to the fruit in cans. Here, they struggle to know how to cut it, and when they do finally serve it they are disappointed with its taste. Taeko’s youth, while easily made to feel like it was only yesterday, really was a very long time ago. While the film itself was made in 1991, it is set 1982 with flashbacks to 1966. The perspective between 1966 and 1982 forces you to consider why Taeko accepts her beating from her father and views it as normal. As we wind forward a decade later (or 3 decades later to this review) the act is now an appalling one but allows us to watch as values have shifted through time. This is also seen with the pineapple; it may seem odd and unusual but at the time this would have been a great delicacy and a rare treat. This shows how perspectives shift with regard to values and possessions and become dependent on which decade you choose to relate to when viewing.

Screenshot (15).pngChild Taeko and friends celebrate Adult Taeko’s decision 

Due to his difficulties creating an overarching narrative, Isao Takahata included Taeko as an adult and her romance, neither of which feature in Omohide Poroporo, and were inserted to create a tangible story. With this added storyline of Taeko in her adult years it is interesting to see that this creates a similarity between Only Yesterday and Kiki’s Delivery Service, with Only Yesterday serves nicely as a pseudo-sequel, if only in theme. While Kiki’s journey involved growing up and yearning for independence, Taeko has completed that journey and is wondering where she is to go now.

Only Yesterday pulls us into the life of Taeko and asks the question: what will bring you happiness? Is it in the place you’ve always been or are you in a stone’s throw away from the life you want? Have you been limited by people who don’t understand you, and are they stopping you now? If Only Yesterday has one message, it is to get out there, live the life you want. Don’t let anything hold you back.

8 of of 10 Totoros