After Grave of the Fireflies and The Tale of Princess Kaguya, this is the third Isao Takahata film I’ve seen. I’ve got the feeling that the two movies of his I haven’t seen yet (Pom Poko and My Neighbors the Yamadas), have a more broadly comedic tone that will be notably different. Nevertheless, Only Yesterday, which he released in 1991 and was his second feature at Ghibli, when looked at within the context of the two Takahata movies I have seen, gives me a very good idea of where the director’s personal interests and auteurist tendencies lie.
Takahata was at Ghibli from the start (producing Hayao Miyazaki’s first two features), but at least in the west, he isn’t nearly as popular and highly regarded as Miyazaki. I wouldn’t say he is a “better” director, but he is undoubtedly more unapologetically idiosyncratic than his more famous colleague. What I mean by that is that, while Miyazaki creates wildly original worlds, his movies more easily fit the mold of what an animated movie looks like. They might be very violent (Princess Mononoke), or they might be morally complex (The Wind Rises), but they could mostly be described as adventures.
Takahata, on the other hand, is more interested in drama of a more social-realist bend.Grave of the Fireflies is a tragic story of two kids trying to survive a war, and The Tale of Princess Kaguya is a poignant tale of futile feminism. I guess you could describe them as “message movies”, but they are far more microscopic than the usual examples of that genre. The most powerful moments in both movies don’t involve plot-shaking action, or important speeches, Takahata’s power is usually in showing mundane situations and shining a new light on them. We see the characters engage (or attempting to engage) in things we do in our everyday life, and it’s the content of who they are, and why they’re doing this that breaks our hearts.
Only Yesterday fits pretty comfortably into this social-realist mold. It is based on the manga of the same name by Hotaru Okamoto and Yuko Tone, which is essentially a memoir consisting of small episodes in the life of Taeko, a ten-year-old girl growing up in 1960s Japan. The original Japanese title Omoide Poro Poro translates literally to “Memories come crumbling down”, which fits very nicely with the way Takahata altered the material when adapting it to the screen. He added a second story-line to the movie, which features a grown-up Taeko traveling to the country, and serves as a framing device for the childhood memories.
At this point, I’ve grown sick and tired of framing devices. It’s a technique that is unnecessary in about 90% percent of the movies in which it is used. But there are, of course, exceptions to the rule. I’m talking about the rare movie in which the “main” plot and the flashbacks are of equal importance. The movie where the framing device is not a way for the audience to enter the story, but a story of its own. A story where framing device and flashback are in conversation, and reveal each other’s emotional complexity. Only Yesterday is that kind of movie.
In the framing device, Taeko the young woman rides a train to spend her vacation working on a farm in the country. This is a big deal because, as a young child, Taeko wanted nothing more than to spend her summer vacation in the country. In flashback, we see Taeko asking her mom “Why can’t we go to grandma’s house in the country?” “Because grandma lives with us in Tokyo” is the answer; and so, we’re already been familiarized with the movie’s clever and tender tone.
Like I said, all of Taeko’s scenes as an adult were invented by Takahata. Taeko’s time in the country, during which she makes a connection with a young man and finds nature’s pleasures in the form of agricultural labor, turn Only Yesterday into a movie about a thirty-year-old woman on an emotional quest to find herself. It’s essentially an animated version of Eat, Pray, Love; the only difference being that it is, you know, good.
Now you see what I mean when I call Takahata “unapologetically idiosyncratic”. Could you picture an American animated studio making such a movie today, let alone the early nineties? As a matter of fact, Only Yesterday is the only Studio Ghibli movie to have never been released on the U.S. (either theatrically or in home video). The reason for this is, presumably, that there are people that object to the movie’s extended sequence in which Taeko learns what a “period” is, and not necessarily to the fact that the movie’s concept is far away from that of any movie that has been successfully released in America.
This wasn’t a problem for Japanese audiences, who, yes, are more accustomed to more mature themes in animated movies, but whose response to the movie was still surprisingly enthusiastic, making an animated character study into the highest grossing movie of 1991 in their country. Something undoubtedly struck a chord with audiences, and I would presume it might have been how lovely, energetic, and authentic the childhood scenes are. We spend a lot of time with Taeko’s classmates, and Takahata rightfully captures the nuances (or lack thereof) in the interactions of children of that age.
Still, the question remains, did Only Yesterday have to be an animated movie? And the answer is a resounding… maybe. Only Yesterday might have been as effective had it been a live action film, but the truth is that we will never know about that. What we do know, is that, in its current form, Only Yesterday is fantastic, and that Takahata does use the medium of animation to inform the the telling of his story, by establishing a visual contrast in the way the framing device and the flashback story-line are presented.
The framing device, with grown-up Taeko, like most Ghibli movies, looks fantastic. It is full of richly colored backdrops, precisely drawn animation, and strong visuals all around. What the director was trying to achieve here, is a sense of ultra-realism. This was before the heyday of CG animation, so this must have been the most realistic-looking animated movie at the time. A hint of how far Takahata was willing to go to achieve the realism he required can be seen in the character design, which is as intricately animated as to feature muscle lines, a detail that is absent from virtually all animated work, and that could have been absent here, but shows that the people involved with this movie wanted to go that extra mile.
Meanwhile, the flashback sequences are set against a soft watercolor backdrop. A lot of them have soft edges around the frame, with the lines disappearing as if they were an impressionistic painting instead of a photograph. The character design is less realistic, embracing a certain cartoonish quality to the facial expressions instead. When characters feel shame, their cheeks turn a stark red (as pictured below), and Taeko’s face moves in more flexible ways, being able to turn her mouth from a little black dot into a huge smile, like most Japanese animated characters do.
The flashbacks are also less realistic from a plot stand-point. They are supposed to be Taeko’s memories, but they do include a few fantasy sequences meant to evoke her feelings more than her thoughts at the time. There is a moment in which Taeko watches television and turns into an extremely cartoonish, wide-eyed cartoon, and another, in which she starts a lovely musical sequence on the street. I don’t want to go into too many spoilers, but the two narratives come together beautifully in the end, in a sequence that will get you teary-eyed, and that has a softness of movement that, I believe, would have never worked in a live action movie.
Only Yesterday is incredibly hard to find in the U.S., but you shouldn’t waste the opportunity to see this movie if you ever have the chance to.
Next Time: Hayao Miyazaki finally makes a movie explicitly about air-travel in Porco Rosso.