No dragons, no talking cats, and no soot sprites, just a young woman and her childhood memories. I have never loved the non-fantasy Studio Ghibli films as much as I love the fantasy films. Did Only Yesterday change my mind?
Writer: Isao Takahata (adapted from manga by Yuko Tone and Hotaru Okamoto)
Director: Isao Takahata
Version Watched: English Dubbed
Though it is one of Studio Ghibli’s early films, Only Yesterday was recently released for the first time in the United States and Canada.
Taeko is taking a couple of weeks off from her life in busy Tokyo. Her plan is to vacation on a farm in rural Japan. As she prepares to board the train, she is greeted with a memory from her childhood when she went on a trip to the country with her family. Through the rest of her vacation, Taeko is continually visited by memories of her fifth grade self. As she reconnects with her childhood, she starts to reevaluate her adulthood. Is she actually happy? Did she miss out on her dreams? It sounds mundane, but told through the beauty of Studio Ghibli, it is a fascinating journey.
You Learn Stuff
Studio Ghibli films, especially the non-fantasy films, are often packed with interesting information about a particular subject. Sometimes it’s aviation, or seafaring, or in this case, organic saffron farming. The farming scenes are a detailed how-to, filled with spectacular scenery.
Seen through Taeko’s eyes, farming is a romantic balance between peacefulness, and the kind of hard work that makes falling into bed at the end of the day a delight. If there was a vacation at the saffron farm signup sheet outside of the movie theater, I would have whipped out my pen and packed my bags.
Misty Animated Memories
The film vacillates between adult Taeko’s time on the farm and flashbacks from her year as a fifth grader. What I appreciated the most about the flashbacks was that they are normal, relatable, down to earth recollections. Taeko didn’t have a traumatic childhood, or abusive parents. She did not suffer through a huge disaster. Her memories are the normal things like struggling with math, talking to a romantic interest for the first time, and dealing with crushing disappointment.
Though the problems seem trivial, the movie does an amazing job painting the picture of how important those moments in your life seem when you are that age. The film is filled with small, quiet, stunning moments that make Studio Ghibli stand out. In a particular scene, Taeko discovers that a boy from another classroom likes her. She does her best to play it cool, but as she walks by the boy’s classroom, she can’t help but take a quick glace to see if she can spot her admirer. The moment is deliberate and lovely.
Perhaps my only small complaint is, why do girl coming of age stories always have to have a menstruation storyline? At first I thought it was funny, as I clearly remember my own day in middle school when the boys and girls were split up to have a “talk.” I remember the girls bugging the boys about what they were told and vice versa. Only Yesterday starts out with that talk, but then the period storyline goes on, and on, with what felt like, at least to me, an uncomfortable amount of focus on that time of the month.
As a child, Takeo is not the most clever, or brave, or the kindest. She isn’t super spunky, or adorably quirky. She is selfish, manipulative, and often whiny. She is all awkwardness and hope; pretty much a normal, typical kid.
Writer/Director Isao Takahata does an excellent job creating a likable, real girl. For a moment I wondered if the writer knew me as a kid. There was the struggle with math, the acting aspirations, boys never liked me though, so I felt assured I wasn’t stalked by an anime director as a child. As you get to know Taeko you can see how incidents that she remembers informs who she is as an adult, and how she still harbors some of the same fears and insecurities that she had in her youth.
Actress Daisy Ridley, of Star Wars fame, does a wonderful job bringing a true warmth to adult Taeko. Perhaps a bit confusing was why she donned an American accent for the role. Actor Dev Patel, who plays Taeko’s love interest, Toshio, retains his normal accent. The story is set in Japan, so there is no reason for Taeko to have an American accent instead of a British accent. I’m still baffled.
The climax and resolution of the film takes place during the end credits. When I saw Only Yesterday in the theater, a few people left before the credits. I wonder if they went home thinking, what a sad, terrible ending.
I loved Only Yesterday. I definitely rank it as a favorite Studio Ghibli film, and my favorite non-fantasy Ghibli film so far. The characters are engaging and relatable. The setting is fascinating, and the story is heartwarming. I encourage everyone to give it a watch.