I hate to put every Studio Ghibli movie in a box, but it’s probably a tendency that I have given that the overwhelming majority of them that I’m familiar with were directed by Hayao Miyazaki. That’s not to say that there’s anything predictable about his films or that he’s guilty of repeating himself or anything. It’s just that there’s a certain group of recurring themes and a prevailing sense of unique optimism and goodwill that flows through his work, and it’s easy to project this onto every other film that Studio Ghibli releases. This probably has a way affecting viewer expectations for every other film that the studio releases. Just by proxy, it’s easy to assume that every Studio Ghibli film is going to be painted by the same worldview, so the viewer probably sets themselves up for such before seeing any non-Miyazaki Ghibli work. Or at least that’s what I think happened to me before seeing Only Yesterday last week. There might be a fantastical scene or two, but it’s not a fantasy film. There’s plenty of meditation on “city life” versus “country life,” but it’s not an eco-fable (far from it, actually). I’m not as familiar with the work of writer/director Isao Takahata as I should be, but it’s pretty clear from this film that he’s definitely not a Miyazaki protege or anything (uh, he’s actually six years older than HM), but a filmmaker who clearly channeling his own vision here.
From the get-go, the narrative structure of Only Yesterday was initially a little confusing until it quickly revealed itself to be a film of two different timelines, the story of 27 year-old Taeko (her surname I’m unsure of) recalling various childhood memories of her ten year-old self during a trip to the countryside to visit family. This would be the perfect opportunity to gloss over the magic of childhood and to cast those years in a golden light of innocence, purity and magic. Initially it seems like that’s the road this film is headed down. During a train trip to visit relatives, Taeko recalls her first childhood crush, and it’s really one of the sweetest and truest depictions of young romance (however naive or mixed up it might be) that I’ve ever seen. But as the film progresses, Taeko’s memories grow less and less fond. While her time visiting relatives and lending a hand on their safflower farm is a positive and rejuvenating experience that brings her much-needed new perspectives on her relatively dead end-life, her recalled memories grow less and less fond as the film progresses. In the screening I saw, the audience’s reaction to these painful and often all too familiar experiences — struggles in school, the onset of puberty, petty but painful family troubles — was ambiguous and often extremely awkward. I guess it’s been a while since I’ve seen a film with such an attentive or involved audience, but you could tell that each flashback in the film was hitting close to home for the viewers in ways that I haven’t witnessed in a film before.
What emerges from this film was not the idealized portrayal of childhood that I was expecting, but something less glamorous, difficult to channel and not as pleasant as many viewers would probably prefer. The sense of subservience, confusion and helplessness that we experience in childhood is often forgotten as we age and begin to exclusively recall our primary school days as full of discovery and “magic.” Has the media sold us all false memories? There’s nothing wonderful, “pure” or even particularly fun about being a kid. It was a tough time! Don’t ever forget that. Especially if you’re going to have some of your own someday.
Oh, right. There’s a romantic plot to this film as well. I don’t know how well I buy it, considering how short Taeko’s trip actually was (what feels like a whole summer in the film is really just ten days), but the dialog that establishes said romantic interest was superb. I’m not sure if I’ve seen such a dialog-driven animated film as this was ever before (unless you count “episode 14” of Key the Metal Idol, but that’s another story). Visually, the film didn’t disappoint, either. The Japanese countryside isn’t depicted with the sort of exciting sights found in Princess Mononoke or Spirited Away, but it’s certainly lushly rendered and doesn’t look any worse for the wear of the past 21 years.
Only Yesterday has never been released in the US, despite its overwhelmingly positive reviews and Disney’s partnership with Studio Ghibli (although the theatrical rights are apparently shared with some company called GKids). Watch about fifteen or twenty minutes into the film and you’ll come across a scene that’s probably made selling the film in America an uphill battle, to say the least. We saw the film at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago as part of their Castles in the Sky retrospective. Only Yesterday‘s run is done, but there’s more Ghibli still to come this summer, so check it out if you’re in Chicago.