Earlier this year, Studio Ghibli released When Marnie Was There. It was celebrated as the final film of the critically acclaimed animation house. But the re-release of Only Yesterday on DVD and Blu-ray serves as another reminder of their towering achievement.
It combines the greatest elements of the Japanese animators, with a contemporary vocal cast including Star Wars: The Force Awakens breakout star Daisy Ridley and the loveable Slumdog Millionaire lead, Dev Patel. Directed by Isao Tahakata, Only Yesterday echoes the reflective and historical detail from Grave of the Fireflies but combines it with the intimacy of The Tale of Princess Kaguya. Suffice to say, you won’t be disappointed with this unforgettable tale from 1991.
Memories, tradition and family are at the core of Only Yesterday. At 27, Taeko (Ridley) has a “good job” at a “good company” in Tokyo. Her entire life has been in the city yet she regularly takes the opportunity to get to the country. On this particular summer, her thoughts hark back to the fifth grade. A time whereby sibling arguments, school yard squabbles and young love defined the young Taeko. This city upbringing was unique and memories of baths and pineapples are rose-tinted, and animated with a lighter, dreamlike pastel palette. These are vivid in her mind and they dominate her thoughts as she takes a sleeper train to Yamagata to pick and process safflower. Her nostalgic mind remains prevalent when she meets Toshio (Patel), an organic farmer who falls for Taeko moments after she arrives in Yamagata. Their friendship blossoms and Taeko has to work through her memories before her thoughts can drift to those of Toshio.
Taeko’s childhood, based in 1966, acknowledges the conservatism of her father, the generational disconnect with her grandmother and the conflicts she had with her sisters. The family relationships and urban city life recalls Ozu’s Tokyo Story: a masterpiece of cinema effortlessly capturing this transitional period in Japan in 1953. Only Yesterday, in contrast, breaks Taeko’s tale into mini episodes, akin to My Neighbours the Yamadas, before weaving the many threads together in the final act. We witness the focus on failing grades and the ignored successful ones; we experience the pleasant surprise of a pineapple and the unexpected taste; we are whisked into the clouds for Taeko’s first experience of love.
Derived from Okamoto Hotaru and Tone Yuko’s josei manga (comics designed for women), Only Yesterday is unique in its playful, honest depiction of young girls and boys learning the features of puberty. How these connect to Taeko’s adult life is key as her awkwardness and imperfect upbringing expresses who she is. Colin Odell and Michelle Le Blanc acknowledge in their book on Studio Ghibli that Only Yesterday is “a poignant film filled with hope … [tempering] its nostalgia with a sense of dreams unfulfilled and of a childhood marked by inaction”.
Only Yesterday feels personal and real through detailed artistry, such as the safflower process of creating rouge, in combination with the subtle touches of history, including references to The Beatles and the introduction of the mini-skirt (even a somewhat unexpected E.T. nod). The detail in the script too, towards organic farming and the agriculture industry, elevates the film entirely. That sense of balance between tradition and modernisation; history and the present, suddenly becomes acutely relevant. “People have struggled with nature to survive,” says Toshio, wistfully.
Only Yesterday, in 1991, would’ve been difficult to access. It has been the last Studio Ghibli film to reach Blu-ray and was one of the last of their films to reach the US. But it is an absolute triumph, and its final reel will leave you in silent reflection, in wonder that an animation can be so profound.