Studio Ghibli #5: Only Yesterday (1991)

It’s crazy to me that in any other animation studio, Isao Takahata, given his filmography, would easily be considered one of the best directors of animation of all time, it’s just unfortunate that he worked in a studio alongside one of the few directors that could challenge him for that title (that being Miyazaki of course). While it is an undeniable fact that Miyazaki has a very distinct style that permeates throughout all of his films, and a style that many associate with Studio Ghibli as a whole, I think that it is a big shame that Takahata doesn’t get the same or at least similar recognition for either his films or his style. I do think this is changing, as in the last couple of years I’m seeing more praise in the West for his works, rightfully so. 

Famously, Takahata wanted to experiment with animation techniques during the production of Grave of the Fireflies but due to various constraints, he was unable to do so and left the animation fairly traditional. But this experimental flair didn’t disappear, and in Only Yesterday his foray into the experimental went beyond just the animation techniques. The film is based on a kids manga of the same name, and the episodic nature of the manga proved to be the first challenge that Takahata faced when deciding to adapt the story into a film. So he developed the framing narrative of the 27 year old Taeko reminiscing about her childhood over the course of her holiday to the countryside. I knew going into the film that it was based on a manga but it was really surprising to find out the whole Adult storyline was developed solely for the film, because it integrated so well into the stories from her childhood and the two really compliment each other so well. But even the idea of this narrative was a landmark for animation, as the genre of realistic dramas for older women was not one typically explored. There is obviously a long history in anime of shoujo anime which is targeted at young-teen female audiences, which have an undeniable crossover with older women (and even men) who enjoy and connect to the stories, but Only Yesterday was one of the first to explore an older demographic. This gamble paid off in abundance however as when the film debuted it attracted a large adult audience (of both genders) and the film became the highest grossing film in Japan for 1991. 

Alongside the genre, the film also proved to be experimental in its animation techniques. Separating itself from its contemporaries, the film doesn’t follow the traditional animation style, with more focus on each of the characters’ facial expressions and muscle movements when they speak. This is most obvious whenever Taeko smiles and/or laughs, as the detail on her cheeks and the lines on her face stand out, but you can also see it across the more in-depth expressions on the face of the other farmers, especially the older ones too. But cleverly, we only see this advancement in the older Taeko’s narrative, with the 10-year old Taeko retaining the traditional and simpler animation style. This was done for practical reasons, but it also allowed for a really interesting thematic contrast, as the simpler style fits well into the film’s themes of memory and nostalgia.

Speaking of, the themes and how the film handles them are for me, the biggest strength of the feature. The way Takahata explores the issues of memories, across a range of emotions, and how they influence us later in life, is superb. Throughout the course of the film, we’re treated to Taeko reliving numerous memories of her younger life, ranging from the happy & joyous: the pineapple, or the going on holiday scenes, to the embarassing: the PE class and the periods, to the formative: “I ain’t shaking hands with you” & the slap. All of these different memories are important to Taeko’s development in some way or another, and as they play out we can connect to them in the same way the Adult Taeko is connecting with them as she remembers. Some of these scenes play out as you would expect with a traditional formula, but at other times the visual language of memory is presented on screen. There are two main examples of this that I want to highlight, the first comes early on when we see Taeko left at home while all of her friends are going on holiday, after a morning exercise class with her only other friend left in Tokyo, she is told that her friend is also going away the next day. In this scene the landscape fades out to the sides, with the edges of the screen looking very minimal compared to the more detailed centre of the screen where Taeko is standing. This represents the sense of isolation that she has attached intrinsically with the memory, this scene is so great because, with it being so early on in the film it already lets us as the audience understand these there aren’t accurate portrayals of the historic events in Taeko’s life, but subjective memories that Taeko aren’t necessarily the factual event but how Taeko remembers the events playing out. The second scene that highlights this perfectly, is when Taeko floats through the sky on the high of her first love, after talking to Hirota. For Taeko, she doesn’t remember walking home, she remembers that feeling of overwhelming love that made that walk seem like she was literally flying through the sky as she headed home. It’s a beautiful encapsulation of the feeling of young love, that works so well considering the thematic nature of memories in this film.

While personally, Takahata’s previous film, Grave of the Fireflies, resonates more with me, I was blown away by how moving and emotional Only Yesterday made me. It is a phenomenal film that cements the director as just as much of a powerhouse as his Studio Ghibli colleague, Miyazaki. This is a film that I can easily see myself coming back to, over and over again, it captures the whole spectrum of human emotions and the ending moved me to tears (of joy).

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