(1991) Written and directed by Isao Takahata; Based on the manga by Hotaru Okamoto and Yuuko Tone; Starring: Miki Imai, Toshirô Yanagiba, Yoko Honna and Mayumi Izuka; Available on Blu-ray and DVD
“To be a butterfly, a caterpillar has to become a chrysalis first, even if it never for a moment wanted to become one. Was I remembering these days so clearly because I needed to become a chrysalis again?” – Taeko (Mimi Imai)
“Live action films are so commonplace these days, they’ve become part of reality. I don’t think audiences ‘watch’ live action features carefully. But in animation, they’re forced to because it’s drawn out. It reflects more solid reality than what actually is. That’s what we do! It makes people realize. I believe animation provides such opportunities.” – Isao Takahata (from making of documentary)
Only Yesterday was released back in 1991, but didn’t see a release in the U.S. until a couple of years ago. Without commenting on the quality (okay, it’s an exceptional film), it’s easy to see why this introspective drama didn’t make it to our shores sooner. There’s nothing flashy or fantastical about the subject matter or the film’s protagonist. It’s about an ordinary person in a mundane existence, on a quest for meaning and fulfillment. Her primary conflict doesn’t exist with other characters but within herself. Hayao Miyazaki initially considered creating a film based on the manga by Hotaru Okamoto and Yuuko Tone, but felt he couldn’t quite bring it to life. Miyazaki decided to produce the film version instead, offering his colleague/business partner/rival Isao Takahata the opportunity to direct. It’s a simple story, told with a level of complexity and care that few animators could handle as deftly.
After breaking off her engagement, Taeko decides to take a vacation in the country, far from the pressures of her big city life. She returns to the same sort of bucolic setting that’s brought her comfort in the past, working on a farm. This time around, she arrives in Yamagata Prefecture to work on a safflower farm. But is farm work nothing but a lark, a mere diversion from her humdrum urban existence, or what she was meant to do?
The story shifts back and forth between the past and present, as 27-year-old Taeko unwittingly takes her 10-year-old self along for the trip. Even if the ramifications aren’t entirely clear, it’s apparent that 1966 was a pivotal year for her. Like turning pages in a book, the scenes gradually reveal a little bit more. Taeko questions why she keeps revisiting her past, but it becomes apparent her younger self is there to call attention to something that’s eluded her. Amidst heartbreak and disappointment, we live with our past selves. Our early experiences, positive and negative, shape whom we were and define the person we will become. Takahata encapsulates how the disapproval of an adult can be devastating to a child. As children, we place tremendous weight on what our role models say and do (i.e., her parents failing to recognize her unique talents, or her teacher’s indignation because she ad-libbed in a classroom play). The film also captures the arbitrary nature of parents’ decisions, and their hurtful consequences, as experienced through the eyes of a child. Viewed via the perspective of her younger self, Taeko experiences her checkered history with boys, and how her fear of connection closed off opportunities for meaningful relationships. Her experiences carry over to her present-day fear of having a romantic relationship with Toshio, a young farmer. Until the final scene, we’re not sure how this is going to play out. Is she doomed to be a prisoner of her fears, or will she benefit from the lessons of her past?
Why did Takahata choose to animate* such a seemingly ordinary story? Animation affords filmmakers unprecedented freedom to express their unique stories with a virtually boundless canvas. There is a crystalized intentionality in animated films that’s difficult, if impossible to duplicate in live action films. One thing I remind myself when I watch animated films, is that everything onscreen exists because someone wanted it there. There is nothing extraneous in Only Yesterday. Everything has a place and a purpose. We feel the immediacy of Taeko’s dilemma, and for that reason, we’re more invested in the outcome. There’s a hyper-realism in the details, as in the film’s depiction of the painstaking process of harvesting the flowers, allowing the petals to ferment, and extracting the dye, which is used for fabric and rouge. Seemingly insignificant moments have a serene, contemplative quality, rendered with meticulous attention to detail, such as a tiny frog hopping among the safflowers.
* Fun Fact: According to the making-of documentary, the animators used 370 different colors of pigment for the film, 10 times the amount typically used in television anime productions.
Only Yesterday caters to Takahata’s strengths, as a master of balancing bittersweet elements in equal measures – depictions of family life that was neither oppressive, nor idyllic, capturing the sadness and joy of youth. The film takes its good old time telling the story, but it’s never dull. There’s so much life in every frame that engages our intellect and our emotions. Takahata encourages us to work with his film, not as a passive observer but as an active participant. As Taeko confronts her memories of her 10-year-old self, you might be prompted to re-examine your own childhood experiences. Only Yesterday lives in the quiet, reflective moments. In many ways it’s the antithesis to the big, bombastic American tradition of animated films of the past few decades. There are no crazy action scenes, wildly eccentric characters, goofy sidekicks, or non-sequitur musical interludes. Only Yesterday represents animation as a meditative experience, not a thrill ride. Fidgety audiences accustomed to having their senses overloaded in every scene need not apply.