Based on the novel of the same name, “Only Yesterday” directed by Isao Takahata is considered a rare drama in the US only because it’s not really available on DVD yet. Thankfully, I was able to view it with subtitles, and uncut, but who knows what the hell Disney will do with it once they decide to release it on DVD. I gather for them, with conservative values, some scenes may not be deemed suitable in spite of the fact that Takahata’s adaptation so effortlessly and fearlessly tackles childhood trauma. What “Only Yesterday” really explores is cherishing life, and our lasting remnants of being a child.
Taeko is a single twenty-seven year old girl living in Tokyo who really has no aspirations to get married, yet her sisters really urge her to. She decides instead to go to the countryside to farm there, and without her true knowledge, her childhood memories come flooding back. Much with the spirit of King’s “Stand By Me”, Taeko recollects many of her childhood memories both good and bad. And through adorable and simple animation courtesy of Studio Gibhli, the film’s powerful themes are not drawn in to the background with the animation. “Only Yesterday” is funny, sweet and often times very sad, and Taeko, the girl pictured here can stand as one of the most underrated tragic characters of film. Though much of the stories here are told by Taeko with an often fond remembrance, and some will say utter disturbing apathy, we know there’s just so much sadness and longing for this girl who had so much aspirations and hope but was always taught to do what was expected.
From her first time getting her period which she felt was something to be ashamed of, to being held back from a potential career in film from her family, Taeko is such a melancholy character who approaches her remembrances with a ho-hum sentimentality which makes the characters around her rather confused. She’s sad, and often times content in that sadness, but following on an impulse and doing the one thing she wants to do as a career, suddenly her childhood memories come flooding back. Many times not even she can understand why. “Only Yesterday” examines not only how our childhood stays with us forever whether we know it or not, but it brings forward many interesting questions. At what point in our lives do we lose all the magic, optimism, and daring ability and become a jaded misanthropic shell?
Do we ever lose that lust for life? Can we ever come to grips with our childhood? “Only Yesterday” never answers these questions for us, but it does make one definitive statement about our life. The child within us never dies. “Only Yesterday” will really manage to touch its audience and many times disturb us not by anything overtly hard to watch, but by the way it touches upon these childhood touchstones and by how Taeko’s life is so ridden with personal trauma and utter awkwardness. She’s called dumb for not understanding math, she really doesn’t have a sense of herself, nor does she truly know the people around her, and never really gets along with her family. The only time she does feel comfortable is in the country, and when she realizes it, she grows sad. But she has no idea why.
This is a film that really did manage to pull me in because anyone, regardless of what time they grew up in, or what family they grew with, will be able to relate with many of the stories here, particularly for the girls. Taeko’s past is not a pretty one, but you become utterly astounded on how she’s so able to keep going and not point fingers or strike out at others. Takahata’s direction is very somber with her past life depicted in rather dreamy sequences making it all the more heartfelt, while her adult life is dim and uneventful until she goes to the country. What helps drive the film to the emotional heights is the excellent voice work provided by Miki Imai who is saccharine as Taeko, while Youko Hanna is excellent as the young Taeko coming in to her life unsure of herself, and probably never sure of herself.
Toshirô Yanagiba gives very natural–almost too natural–voicework as Toshio, the odd but friendly farm worker who befriends Taeko. Be sure to stay around for the heartbreaking and very emotional credits which closes up the story very well with utter symbolism and a bittersweet inspirational climax that will have you debating about long after you’ve finished. One thing is for sure, there won’t be a dry eye in the house. I’m not a Japanese animation fan by any stretch of the word, but sometimes a film really manages to hit a chord and does it well. If you can, seek out “Only Yesterday” and watch it. It’s without a doubt a truly underrated and almost unknown masterpiece about life, and childhood. Well acted, with a very sad story, and great characterization, anyone who is looking for a film with much substance should seek this out immediately.