Original release: July 20th, 1991
Running time: 118 minutes
Country of origin: Japan
Original language: Japanese
Writer and director: Isao Takahata
Cast (Japanese dub): : Miki Imai, Yōko Honna, Toshirō Yanagiba
I’m never quite sure how people build childhood memories into their present self. There are of course those vivid memories that are easy to remember, for better or worse, but there are also more mundane, but by no means less significant, events in hidden pockets of the mind. All of those experiences together add to the composite that is the self. When making an effort to bring back an old half-faded memory from the past, it can be really illuminating in understanding who we are, but it probably never comes with a sense of climax in real life. It’s merely a new piece in the puzzle that is us; in a picture that’s never going to be complete.
Isao Takahata’s animated feature Only Yesterday takes Taeko (Miki Imai) out of the busy city of Tokyo on a contemplative quest of herself while visiting relatives in the rural countryside. Her trip becomes more than just a holiday when she gets an unexpected companion: not really knowing why, Taeko is frequented by her ten year old self (Yōko Honna), reliving several memories from this period in her life.
It all begins as she’s getting ready to leave to see her brother in-law’s sisters; Taeko remembers the summer almost two decades before when she was the only child in her class to have no relatives outside Tokyo and was stuck in the city. From this point on, the young Taeko will not leave her older self alone as she submerges into the organic life of the countryside with a possible future life increasingly present in her mind.
Perhaps the most admirable aspect of Only Yesterday is its ability to convey the significance of the adventure that we all embark on from birth. Dani Cavallaro makes this observation about the film’s portrayal of simple things and everyday life:
Taeko’s life doesn’t have much that could contribute to a high concept drama; an average childhood ended with her getting an office job as a young adult without much excitement that could be the foundation of a conventionally built plot. Yet Isao Takahata tells Taeko’s story of self-discovery in the context of ordinary life with a simplicity that is profoundly engaging. When watching Only Yesterday a few years ago for the first time, I began to understand how versatile Japanese anime is as an art form.
Upon arrival at the train station in Yamagata, Taeko is greeted by the happy-go-lucky Toshio (Toshirō Yanagiba), her brother-in-law’s second cousin. As they drive through the countryside, I was really surprised to hear folk music sang in my own native language of Hungarian; it was a surreal moment that’s even addressed in the dialogue between Toshio and Taeko. Toshio tells her about ‘Muzsikás’, a musical group of five Hungarians making music for peasants – Toshio listens to it since he proudly considers himself as one.
Only Yesterday has even more Eastern European folk music to offer: as well as the beautiful singing voice of Márta Sebestyén with ‘Muzsikás’, we also get to listen to Romanian musician Gheorghe Zamfir playing the mesmerising instrument ‘nai’, to go hand-in-hand with the beautifully animated scenery of rural Japan.
While the story and much of the presentation is undercut with realism, Only Yesterday conveys some of its message in surrealist dream sequences. The episode with Taeko’s first school romance for instance ends with her blissfully flying home and slowly descending onto her bed with a smile. The young Taeko is often physically present around her older self; an intriguing visual element that will play a major role in a beautifully moving climax with Taeko’s life coming to a point where a choice has to be made.
My first watching of Only Yesterday has parallels with the film’s surprise success upon its release in Japan. I too was surprised by how engaging I found such a simple story that was clearly aimed at a female audience. Isao Takahata’s film, however, has a tone that reaches and speaks to everyone regardless of sex or age. Big decisions, successes, desires, roads not taken and plans for the future; Only Yesterday takes the mysteries of life and gives it back to the audience with a sense of beauty and optimism.
Arpad is a Film Studies graduate and passionate photographer (he picked up the camera and started taking stills just as he began his studies of moving pictures). He admires directors that can tell a story first of all in images. More or less inevitably, Brian De Palma has become Aprad’s favourite filmmaker.
Then there’s Arpad’s interest in anime. He was just a boy when he saw Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind on an old VHS and was hypnotised by the story of friendship, devotion and sacrifice. He still marvels at the uncompromising and courageous storytelling in Japanese anime, and wonders about the western audience with its ever growing appetite for “Japanemation”.