Film Review: Only Yesterday
In 1991, Isao Takahata released Only Yesterday, based on the manga Omoide Poro Poro by Hotaru Okamoto and Yuko Tone. Starring Miki Imai, Toshiro Yanagiba, Yoko Honna, Michie Terada, Masahiro Ito, Chie Kitagawa, Yuki Minowa, and Yorie Yamashita, the film was the highest grossing Japanese film in 1991, grossing ¥1.87 billion in distribution income. Winner of the Japan Academy Prize for Popularity Award for Most Popular Film, it was the only Studio Ghibli film unreleased in North America until 2016, when the film was released in New York City on Jan. 1, 2016. The film will get a nationwide United States release in February 2016 starring Daisy Ridley, Dev Patel, Ashley Eckstein, and Alison Fernandez.
Taeko Okajima is an unmarried 27 year old office lady in early 1980s Tokyo. But when she decides to spend her summer holiday at her extended family’s farm in the countryside in order to help with the year’s safflower harvest, seeing it as a way to get a break from city life for a short time, she is overcome with memories of childhood. The film details a series of flashbacks detailing her youth tied with her current life, leaving her wondering whether she’s living true to herself.
An interesting entry into the films put out by Studio Ghibli, Only Yesterday differs from many of the studio’s other films as it seems devoid of the fantastical plots and scenarios that many characters find themselves in. But with the fantasy taking a back seat, it allows for an incredible character arc of the story’s main character, Taeko. However, it’s a very engaging character arc as it presents two coming-of-age stories for the same character. In the flashbacks, Taeko is presented as a child growing up and entering into the world of such things as childhood and childish romances and learning what it means to grow out of being a child. But in the present day, Taeko is shown as nostalgic for her childhood and coming to grips with the realization that the path she’s chosen isn’t true to who she is.
Ultimately, this seems like where the title of Only Yesterday comes in. During her stay in Yamagata, it looks like her nostalgia trip and longing for her childhood brings up the memories that what she’s nostalgic for seems like it was only yesterday and not that long ago. But even if they feel like they weren’t that long ago, there’s been such an obvious passage of time where Taeko became lost to her true self, a self that was completely engrossed in the countryside. Both stories really come to a head and connect with the nostalgic aspect of the film when Taeko is heading back to Tokyo and realizes that the reason she’s so wistful and the reason that everything feels like it was only yesterday is because for her, the countryside isn’t just escapism. It’s where she belongs.
In everything, from the character arcs of growing up and understanding that a chosen path may not be true to oneself to Taeko looking at and longing for the past, the film is very well-made and well-done in how it’s relatable, even for men. While Taeko is a woman and the coming of age stories center on a girl growing up an a woman waxing about her time as a girl, growing up and being nostalgic for times gone by, possibly when a person really was staying true to who they were, happens to everyone. There’s no person who didn’t experience some sort of childhood and come away with memories of it that they look back on. Granted, some of them may not be the best memories and the looking back may not be wistful and longing, but everyone looks back.
What’s more is true to life, there are some endearingly heartwarming moments as well as some incredibly humorous moments that surround Taeko, both in adulthood and childhood. For the former, as an adult, Taeko is telling her brother-in-law’s second cousin Toshio a story of a classmate who had refused to shake her hand, which causes Toshio to try and hold her hand several times. An example of the latter can be found in Taeko’s family’s procurement of a pineapple when she was a kid. Not only is the family humorously trying to figure out how to eat it, but Taeko’s face upon realization that it’s not what she was expecting is hilarious. It evolves into impressive when she becomes determined to enjoy what she built up in her mind so much and forces herself to eat as much as she can.
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