Written & Directed by Isao Takahata
Only Yesterday is the exception to the Studio Ghibli canon, in many ways. For one, it is expressly unique in that, despite being released in 1991, the film has never seen a North American release, gracing the screens in America for the first time twenty-five years after its initial release. So, if you were curious why I had skipped over this film in my marathon to this point, that is why, as it was not released here until February 26, so it had to be shuffled behind a few films from the canon that were released after this film chronologically. Secondly, Only Yesterday is a masterpiece of animation and storytelling from Ghibli and Takahata, which isn’t really any exception to the rest of Ghibli, but it is when it has been kept a secret from America for so long.
Taeko is a successful woman of twenty-seven living in Tokyo. She has lived her whole life in Tokyo, as her family have been city dwellers for generations. Despite being successful, Taeko can’t help but feel a void in her life, which she often fills with trips to the countryside. On this occasion, she has taken vacation time to travel to the countryside where she will help work in the fields with the safflower harvest. While traveling, she is met with the memories of her childhood in fifth grade, memories which come “flooding back”. She is reminded of her childish self as she remembers many things about her childhood which seem to conflict with her current, independent, successful self, who in fact is searching for the truth of who she is and where she wants to end up not just geographically, but spiritually as well.
As many of you know, I have been experiencing these Ghibli films in their dubbed versions, and Only Yesterday is no exception. However, as it is being released in North America for the first time, there is a new dub which I experienced with this film which includes performances from Daisy Ridley, who you know from the new Star Wars, and Dev Patel. Much of my positive response to the film comes from Daisy Ridley, who delivers one of the best voice performances I’ve ever experienced, bar none. Her intonation and delivery of the central character of Taeko really helps lift the story to greater heights. She does a remarkable job of making the character sympathetic and very real. It is not often that I would call a voice performance crucial to the film, but Ridley’s may very well be that.
But of course, her performance is nearly standing on the shoulders of giants as they say, taking the incredible material already created by Isao Takahata and doing her best to become the Taeko of the page, whose vulnerability and honesty shine through in the enthusiasm she has for spending time working hard in the countryside. I think what helps attract me to this film in particular is how I could see similarities in Taeko and myself. I have long been a city boy longing to spend time in the tranquil setting of the countryside, often taking “vacations” which include the excruciating activity of hiking mountains, while others may dream of relaxing on a beach somewhere. Her vigor is infectious, but when complimented by her younger self, whose traits were not always quite as savory, Takahata is able to paint a full picture of who Taeko is, and the journey she has taken to become herself. This natural transition and transformation is what makes the film a marvel.
The structure of the film is a little loose at times, jumping back and forth between past and present with what seems to be little intent. However, as these scenes amass, we are treated to a fuller picture of who Taeko is and why she is who she is, where she might be going, even as she herself has little knowledge of her future. The animation here from Takahata and his team is astoundingly beautiful, as they capture the idyllic landscapes of the countryside in perfect harmony with the lighter touch seen in the memories of Taeko’s Tokyo childhood. The film’s score, too, is of note, rearing itself at the right times and complimenting the lyrical storytelling. All these things combine to create a complete picture, one which miraculously feels like a spiritual journey of discovery, even while not once being religious or preachy, but rather a very personal and raw portrait of a strong woman allowing herself the time to be vulnerable.