There are plenty of films out there that are intended to be tear-jerkers. They willfully bend your emotions so that you're personally dragged to the point of sadness. A few work; most do not. They usually fail because you see the proverbial writing on the wall long before the movie ends--and likely being advertised right on the one-sheet poster hanging in the lobby. In sharp contrast, director Isao Takahata makes films that appear to be simple dramas. Yet, of the four films he has made to date, two of them, Grave of the Fireflies and Only Yesterday, make me cry every time I see them.
It's not a macho thing to admit, certainly, but it's the truth. The reason they are so affecting has nothing to do with leading the audience into sap or throwing us metaphysical platitudes. If anything, Takahata takes an impartial route through his films, simply creating utterly realistic characters in real situations who touch us because they we empathize with them. There's nothing staged about them; they just exist. By the time we've spent two hours with them, we desperately feel for these animated natives. If Grave of the Fireflies is Takahata's story of hope lost, Only Yesterday is his tale of hope found. It has resided in my top ten anime list of all time for a great long while. After watching it again, I realize that at #9, it is probably ranked too low.
Only Yesterday introduces us to Taeko, a 27-year-old salarywoman working in a high-rise office in Tokyo in 1982. Unsure of herself and where her life is going, she decides to take a ten-day leave to go out to the countryside to help her sister-in-law's family harvest safflowers, which are used in making certain cosmetics. As she travels, she starts to remember her life as a fifth-grader in 1966. The narrative brings both stories together as Taeko's past explains the missteps of her present life. But as Taeko finds herself falling in love with a simpler existence, as well as the idealistic young farmer Toshio, she will have to decide whether her history will hold sway over her decisions, or if she can finally move beyond her complicated childhood.
I give Takahata a lot of credit for Only Yesterday, since it's his plot device that really makes this film fantastic. The original manga was written as a memoir of Taeko's young self in 1966. Since it was written as a series of vignettes, it apparently proved difficult to translate into film until Takahata introduced the concept of the older Taeko as a device to plot the film's course. The juxtaposition of the two eras works amazingly well, and each one is detailed with certain looks and styles that even those with no knowledge of Japanese culture can spot. The animation is beautiful, as is no surprise from any Studio Ghibli effort. The soundtrack is also perfectly set; my wife wandered through the room a few times while I was watching it and was struck by the beauty of it. From a technical standpoint, aside from a couple of shots I think could have been done differently to better effect, it is perfect.
But what makes Only Yesterday a wonderful movie is its complete understanding of human nature. Taeko as an 11-year-old girl is willful, selfish, and stubborn. At the same time, she is free-spirited and longing, a deeply emotional dreamer. Unlike most movie heroines, she is all of them, usually at the same time. She is a mess of contradictions, just like the rest of us. But it's this combination that makes us soar with her when a young boy she likes talks to her for the first time, that makes us grieve with her when her real self is crushed time and again by a family that can't understand their one daughter who happens to be a bit different from the conformist norm. We also understand why the Taeko of 1982 is torn by her longings and her discomfort with the traditional roles everyone wants her to take. By the show's ending, which rolls as the credits play, we know Taeko. You want to invite her over for supper and an entertaining discussion over cards. All of the characters are this way--neither saints nor demons, just real people. It's what makes Only Yesterday a classic anime film.
Although Disney has the rights to this film, along with several others in the Studio Ghibli canon, it's doubtful that it will ever appear in the US because of its decidedly Japanese flavor. It goes beyond the myriad of cultural pop references that can be missed by a foreign audience without losing much. Certain sequences require a bit of knowledge of Japanese culture for them to even make sense. For example, there is a disturbing sequence where Taeko's father becomes enraged and slaps her for coming out of the house barefoot. To American audiences, this sudden change in the father's disposition seems unwarranted and leads us to think of him as abusive. However, in traditional Japanese custom, leaving barefoot was almost like stepping out of the house naked. The father still overreacts, but the cultural footnote is a necessity to understanding what really happens.
Beyond this problem, the film is meant for adults, and though there is no material particularly unsuitable for children, it likely would be of no interest to them. It is much more like the fare one would see at an art-house cinema than at the metroplex. As Disney targets all of the animation it sells in the US to children, this one simply won't be coming out of their coffers. For those who are willing to spend the extra money and have a region 2 DVD player, the Japanese DVD set does include English subtitles for the film.
Only Yesterday is a wonderful film that works on multiple levels. It goes beyond being a great anime and is really one of the best motion pictures I've seen. It includes none of the trademarks of anime--no mecha, no violence, no melodramatic comedy romances, no fan service, and no science fiction formulas--and it grows the genre because of it. If you consider yourself a fan of anime or the cinema, you must see Only Yesterday.
Only Yesterday -- nothing objectionable, though geared for adults -- A+