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ANIME REVIEW: Isao Takahata’s “Only Yesterday”

ANIME REVIEW: Isao Takahata’s "Only Yesterday"

The one Studio Ghibli film that was never distributed in the
US, Isao Takahata’s Only Yesterday (Omohide
Poro Poro
, literally “memories trickle
down”)is finally getting a long overdue release in a
lively new English dub (opening in selected theaters this week). Although Takahata completed the
film 25 years ago, it was only available to American viewers on the old bootleg
Ghibli set. No one seems to know why Only
Yesterday
has been overlooked for so long. It was #1 film in Japan in 1991,
and its appearance can only enhance the already enviable reputations of
Takahata and Studio Ghibli.

 

Taeko (voice by Disney Ridley) has an agreeable, unexciting job
and a tiny apartment in Tokyo in 1982. But she’s spent her entire life in the
city; she’s ready for a change. Also, Taeko is 27 and single: at that time, an unmarried
woman over 25 was referred to in Japan as “Christmas Cake”—something that’s still
on the shelf after its sell-by date. On a whim, she decides to visit the cousins
she stayed with as a girl in the Yamagata region, northwest of Tokyo.

 

Taeko joins her cousins working in the fields. She reflects on
how generations of women tore their hands picking the thistle-like safflower
blossoms that were used to make rouge—a compound so expensive, no farm woman
could afford it. She enjoys the contact with the soil and the connection with
the past.

 

But Taeko is surprised to discover she seems to have brought
her fifth grade self with her. The spectral presence of the girl she once was
triggers a flood of memories—discovering boys, the onset of puberty, adolescent
friendships, trouble with math, arguments with her older sisters. The memories
enable Takeo to explore who she is, and how she became a woman who lives in
Tokyo, but loves the country.

 

In 1991, the Japanese countryside was already becoming
depopulated. Young people were abandoning rural villages for the promise of a
more exciting life in big cities, especially Tokyo. But one person resolutely resists
the urban flight. Toshio (Dev Patel), an earnest, slightly clumsy young man
with an easy laugh, is dedicated to sustainable, organic agriculture. It’s hard
work, but he loves the land as much as Taeko does, and that shared affection
leads to a maladroit courtship.

 

Takahata’s lyrical film celebrates the beauty of the forests
and fields, but it’s a restrained celebration, marked by the Japanese concept
of mono no aware, an awareness of the
inevitably transitory nature of life and beauty. In the flashback sequences,
Takahata’s artists allow the watercolor backgrounds to fade into the
surrounding white paper, suggesting the incompleteness of memories. The viewer
knows the traditional farmer’s way of life is also fading away, although Toshio
and Takeo will preserve a small part of it for as long as they can.

 

Daisy Ridley reportedly likes the Studio Ghibli films and had
expressed interest in becoming a voice before the success of The Force Awakens. She gives Taeko a
warmth and enthusiasm that quickly win the viewer over. Dev Patel brings a
low-key charm to Toshio. If he sounds very British in some scenes, the
differences in pronunciation suggest the regional dialect his character would
use.

 

Like Takahata’s other films, Only Yesterday has a sense of personal vision often lacking in American
features. Although it’s based on a manga by Hotaru Okamoto and Yuuku Tone, it
feels like the work of an artist who had story he wanted to tell, rather than
the product of committee meetings and focus group studies. At a time when the Hollywood
studios have been criticized for its failure to present women’s stories,  Only
Yesterday
offers a warmly engaging account of a woman learning who she
wants to be by exploring who she was.

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