Film Review: Only Yesterday (1991)
Only Yesterday is a social realistic, introspective drama, following the ongoing conversation a 27-year-old woman has with her 10-year-old self.
The film is essentially a psychological self-examination of where she now is, where she has been, how she got here, and where she ultimately wants to be. With a nice side portion of romance.
Only Yesterday is an animated film, loosely based on a manga by Hotaru Okamoto and Yuko Tone. Japan’s Studio Ghibli animates. Studio Ghibli co-founder Isao Takahata writes and directs and creates a wonderfully tight and encapsulating narrative framework that steadily and assuredly pulls you into this realm of reverie.
Anno 1982/Anno 1966
Taeko Okajima is a 27-year-old woman, living alone in Tokyo, working an office job that grants her no joy. She’s the youngest in a family of three daughters; the only one not “settled.” There are pressures from the home front to find a man, settle down, start a family. Taeko is not decidedly unhappy with her lot in life, but there is this sense that she just is – she is just there, slogging away, not truly fulfilled.
Although a city girl born and raised, Taeko loves the countryside, dreams of it, has done so since her childhood. So, for her annual summer vacation, she intends to spend ten days on a farm in the Yamagata Prefecture in northern Japan plucking safflowers. The farm belongs to her brother-in-law’s family and extended family. She also spent her vacation last year on the same farm.
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As she starts her journey to the farm, the travels down memory lane also begin. The narrative weaves seamlessly between the grown woman in her unfulfilling adult life and the little girl she once was, full of wonder, curiosity, aspirations, and possibilities. Taeko remembers who she once was.
Taeko, as a 10-year-old in the fifth grade, tried her first fresh pineapple – a humorously disappointing affair as none in the family knew how to test for ripeness, how to eat it. This young Taeko has a first crush that goes awkwardly nowhere, is daily scolded by her mother for not eating her pickled onions, is failing math. She overhears adult conversations regarding her potential daftness. She fights with her older sisters, dreaming of handbags just like theirs. Her father is a reticent patriarch, a father-knows-best type, who only puts down his cigarette and newspaper to bark orders and lay down the law. He hits her. Girls are talking about menstruation at school, this gateway to womanhood and all that it entails. She steals the show in her minor role in a school play through her subtle enthusiasm.
Coming-of-Age, Coming-to-Terms and Choosing
In short, Taeko is a girl on the cusp, on the cusp of puberty and adulthood, learning to navigate herself through this life and its many expectations and disappointments. She is coming-of-age. And the 27-year-old Taeko, already come-of-age, is now coming-to-terms with this life – the choices made, and the paths taken. The emotional connection between the girl then and the woman now is readily apparent. The woman Taeko is also on the cusp, realizing that she, too, is at a crossroads in her life, that its trajectory could change – could change for the more challenging and the potentially more joyous, if she makes a choice.
You see, Toshio met Taeko at the station in Yamagata, and it’s a meeting as awkward as the one and only conversation she had with her first crush. Toshio is a young farmer, a cousin of her brother-in-law’s, and a man she barely knows. And yet, Taeko finds herself, as the vacation wears on, opening up to him, sharing her deepest thoughts and fears with him. Affable and open, that grounded farmer and good man Toshio listens. And what Taeko fears most – what many of us fear most – is that there is nothing in her worth touching, worth loving.
Worth a Watch – Or Two or Three
Only Yesterday is definitely worth touching, worth watching. It is a truly lovely film, so tightly and seamlessly constructed – a feat only accomplished by the great storytellers. The story is introspective and evocative, full of beauty and grace and humor. And layers – many, many layers of meaning. It is also heartrending, full of self-doubts and recriminations, of old hurts and scars that need to be laid to rest. Truly, it is a universal tale, speaking to the human experience.
The animation is beautiful. The fledgling romance between Toshio and Taeko is so guarded, so initially awkward, so honorable, so subtle, it will have you twitching for realization. I will say that I’ve watched the ending multiple times. And that’s a very good and satisfying thing.
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I cannot recommend Only Yesterday highly enough. It’s a pleasure from start to finish, a pleasure made all the more bittersweet when you know that there will be no more films from Takahata’s talented hand. Isao Takahata just passed away the 5th of April, 2018. He was 82 years old. He made beautiful films and told beautiful stories. And I’m so glad he did. It’s enriched my life. Enrich yours by seeing Only Yesterday or Grave of the Fireflies or The Tale of Princess Kaguya or any number of the many films he wrote, produced, directed through the years.
Content Note: Rated PG. There is smoking, discussion of menstruation, and brief physical violence against a child.
Where to Watch: DVD.
Photo Credit: Studio Ghibli.
“The stuff that dreams are made of.”
“In vain have I struggled. It will not do. My
feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me
to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.”