[Followed by her past self, and some other memories along for the ride.]
Originally released in Japan in 1991, ONLY YESTERDAY was the fifth film from the prolific Studio Ghibli film studio. Now in theaters, it is the last from their archive to be distributed in North America, and includes a serviceable English dub featuring up-and-comer Daisy Ridley (Star Wars: The Force Awakens) and Dev Patel (Slumdog Millionaire).
It’s easy to see why it’s taken Disney so long to get around to this one. ONLY YESTERDAY forgoes many of the fantastical elements that Ghibli films are known for. It tells a simple coming-of-age story through flashbacks of 27-year-old Taeko, whose reflections on her childhood inform her trajectory in adulthood. The correlation is not always obvious, and if the film has a major flaw, it is an over-reliance on explicit narration to connect the dots. However what the film does well, it does phenomenally. ONLY YESTERDAY shines the brightest when it’s focusing on yesterday. The manga the film was based on was about 10-year-old Taeko, and these moments bring an uncanny humor and honesty that rival Ghibli’s best work. Whether trying her first bite of fresh pineapple, developing her first crush, or struggling to keep the boys in her class from finding out what a period is, Taeko’s struggles are human enough to feel universal and timeless, but specific enough to speak to their setting of 1960’s Japan.
Director Isao Takahata does a fantastic job of differentiating the disparate timelines. 1960’s Taeko is drawn in a more simplified, stylized form than her “realistic” adult counterpart. The faded watercolor borders of the frame are similar to Takahata’s more recent work with The Tale of Princess Kaguya, and provide a nice visual counterbalance for the saturation and deep texture of the 1980’s. This environmental art in the “modern day” periods is especially engaging, reminding me of a Satoshi Kon film in their ability to suck the audience into their world with such phenomenal attention to detail.
While the sum of the film’s parts don’t add up to the greatest of Ghibli’s classics, ONLY YESTERDAY certainly has some of the best parts I’ve seen in any movie. Representing children honestly is a nut that few have managed to crack, but Takahata reminds us once again that Ghibli reigns supreme in this area. Go check this out in your local art-house theater and remind Ghibli that their films still matter.