Anytime I hear that a movie produced by Studio Ghibli is getting a United States theatrical release, I find myself racing to the theatre on the nearest Catbus. Only Yesterday is no exception.
It was Only Yesterday. Well, 1991…
Only Yesterday was originally released in Japan in 1991. To put that into perspective, in 1991, 90210 premiered, Nirvana hit it big, and the Internet was released to the public. One of the great things about Only Yesterday is that due to its superb production and the timeless nature of it’s message it has aged very well.
Isao Takahata – Studio Ghibli’s Other Half
Only Yesterday was written and directed by Isao Takahata. Takahata also wrote and produced Grave of the Fireflies, My Neighbors the Yamadas, and, the relatively recent 2013 release, The Tale of Princess Kaguya (HIGHLY underrated IMHO).
His films are markedly different from the Studio Ghibli movies written and directed by the better known, Hayao Miyazaki. Unlike Miyazaki’s films, such as Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, and Howl’s Moving Castle, Takahata’s movies have less in the way of overt fantasy elements, and are often much more quiet and deliberate in the message and moral they’re trying to impart on their viewers.
What’s the Movie About?
Only Yesterday follows the story of Takeo Okajima (Daisy Ridley ), a 27-year-old woman living in Tokyo in 1982. When we pick up her story, she is unmarried and has lived her entire life in Tokyo. She decides to take a trip to the countryside, and while traveling, begins recalling important eventsfrom her childhood when she was in 5th grade in 1966. At first these events do not seem to be very important, but as the movie goes back and forth from 1982 to 1996, you start to understand that these seemingly small moments were important to her childhood, her development, and who she is as a person in 1982. Indeed, you will find yourself realizing how much small every day events in your own childhood have stuck with you throughout your life.
FIfth grade Takeo is much different and is still full of uncertainty, hope, and is struggling to develop her identity. In short, she is a pre-teen. These flashbacks do a great job of showcasing what sometimes naturally happens growing up. As you become more prepared for adulthood, it is very easy to lose sight of what truly makes you happy, and what gives you a sense of fulfillment as you try to fit into the mold that society and your culture culure have laid out for you. Luckily for the adult Takeo, she still has a connection to her source of fulfillment through these trips to the countryside. She chooses to go to the countryside and pick Safflowers, instead of going on a lavish vacation.
When she gets to the country, she meets Toshio (Dev Patel). As the story goes on and she gets more and more in touch with her true self and sense of fulfillment, the flashbacks come less and less. We start spending less time in 1966 and more time in 1982. Throughout the movie, it feels like her fifth grade self is nudging her towards what will truly make her happy.
Also, while there are the sparks of a romance between Takeo and Toshio, that is not the crux of the story. It is less about her falling in love and more about her getting back to who she is and what she really wants.The story goes on from there and I don’t want to give away the ending of the movie, but make sure to stay until the very end for one of the most touching scenes I have ever seen.
Only Yesterday is a gorgeous, and will make you really appreciate 2-D animation. There were several times where I found myself just marveling at the backgrounds or the facial expressions. You can tell that a great deal of effort and care went into the production.
Throughout the movie, adult Takeo has an internal monologue that serves to expand on the flashbacks and give the viewer a better insight into her as a character. Generally, the rule in film is to show and not tell, but Only Yesterday gets away with it here. It is rare to see a movie that does such a good job presenting a character’s thoughts in the same way a book would be able to.
The Story and Message
This is a great movie for people of almost any age to watch. It expresses the idea that your life is truly yours to live and you shouldn’t let society define that for you. It also shows just how much our childhood affects who we are as we become as adults. Often, animated media, especially from Japan, is seen as being just for kids, but Only Yesterday is not, and seeks to raise the level of your thinking about life and fulfillment.
Some of the Voice Acting
While most of the voice acting is done very well, there are some spots where the choices are weird. For instance, Toshio is voiced by Patel with an accent which doesn’t seem to match the rest of the cast. Also, in the attempt to appeal to an International audience, certain phrases are used which just seem out of place. One such example, is when Takeo agrees with something by saying to her friend, “shonuff”. It just sort of takes you out of the movie.
While I do like the fact that the film takes its time and is deliberate, it really does slow to a crawl about an hour in. That’s fine for me, as I like much of the underlying aspects, but this movie can meander and might lose viewers who aren’t immediately invested in the story from the beginning.
And The Ghibli
Attention To Detail
The usual Studio Ghibli eye for detail is present in Only Yesterday. For example, the art styles for 1982 and 1966 are different, yet similar. Properly describing it is somewhat difficult , but it’s almost like you know you are looking not so much at the events from 1966, but her memories of the events from 1966.
One of the things that Studio Ghibli movies are great at is giving you a window into Japanese culture and history. Only Yesterday does this as well. Whether it’s by showing the family dynamics of a Japanese family in 1996 or describing, in a surprisingly touching scene, how the rouge in products like lipstick was made from Safflowers and what those who worked on these farms went through.
Only Yesterday is a movie that is certainly worth your time. Just be aware that it does not have the same tone or execution as other Studio Ghibli movies, like Spiritied Away, and can get very slow at times. That being said, the animation, the story, and the overall message of finding your version of happiness make it a worthwhile and satisfying movie to watch.
I give it 8 out of 10 Safflowers.