Only Yesterday (impressions)
By Rebecca Davies
Isao Takahata's Only Yesterday is a gentle but poignant tale about a 27-year-old Tokyo office worker who embarks on a voyage of self-discovery while on holiday in the countryside.
Flitting effortlessly between the protagonist's 1960s childhood and 1980s present, both the animation and the plot are a lot more realistic than in the works of Takahata's Ghibli co-founder Hayao Miyazaki, but are none the less enchanting.
As in his masterful animated war film, Grave of the Fireflies, Takahata once again proves – albeit less bleakly – that animation is more than capable of treating serious subjects. Here he covers feminism, the effect of market reforms on agriculture and inevitable loss of tradition, as well as adolescent concerns like boys, periods and fashion.
The script occasionally spends too long expounding the virtues of things like organic farming, but this is more than made up for by the film's flabbergasting beauty. Lingering, light-dappled pastoral shots give us plenty of time to take in the delicately-rendered Japanese landscapes, while intimate domestic scenes are captured with carefully-constructed, Ozu-like framing. A wistful score by composer Katsu Hoshi completes the nostalgic mood.
Only Yesterday is a nostalgia-tinged, gloriously-detailed animation for adults and older children that doesn't shy away from real and universal issues like love, regret and the pains of growing up.
28 February 2005
By Daniel Thomas MacInnes
Isao Takahata is not a name most Americans will recognize. Mention his name, and more often than not, you will be greeted with shrugs. But make no mistake: Takahata is a poet who has revolutionized animation as an art form. If you see his Grave of the Fireflies, you will be tempted to call it his masterpiece. I felt the same way myself, but I was wrong. Omohide Poro Poro is his masterpiece.
I'll be even bolder and declare this to be the finest animated picture ever made; a grand achievement of animation as art form. It proves to be deeply moving, at many times overwhelming; yet is also close, small, intimate. This is one of the great movies of our lives.
Takahata only made one fantasy adventure picture, his first, The Adventure of Hols, Prince of the Sun, in 1968 with Hayao Miyazaki. Miyazaki fell in love with adventure movies; Takahata moved in the opposite direction, towards realism. He strove to create animation influenced by neo-realism, a naturalism in the style of Jean Renoir and Yasujiro Ozu.
Omohide Poro Poro best incorporates the traits and skills Takahata developed during the 1970's, when he revolutionized animation in Japan with World Masterpiece Theatre, presenting television renditions of Heidi and Anne of Green Gables, and then in 1982 with his great Goshu the Cellist.
His style is reflective and deeply personal, very much like Ozu, but Takahata's greatest gift, for me at least, is his ability to take us inside the heads of his characters as their imaginations take flight. That trait is what made his version of Anne so memorable; here, he takes one story and molds an entirely different story from within.
Omohide Poro Poro is the story of a Tokyo office worker named Taeko. At age 27, she feels dissatisfied, unhappy with her life. She slowly begins to question some of her life decisions, her choice in careers. When we first see her, she has decided to spend a week with her sister's in-laws who live out in the country.
Taeko puts on a happy face and gets along well with others, but we discover that much of this is a shell, a cover. Over the course of the movie, she wonders out loud if her whole life has been a front to pacify the outside world. Perhaps she is entering another moment of growth in her life, and she begins to reflect upon another similar time, her childhood and early adolescence. The movie dances about, from the present day (1982) to Taeko-chan's tenth year (1966), and back again. For almost anyone's first viewing, it's the flashbacks in Poro Poro that leap out in our minds. These scenes are drawn in a style I've never seen before in an animated film. The screen is drawn very sparsely, with colors and details fading away at the edges of the screen. The amount of visual detail is striking, almost like sketches from a beloved children's book, painted with spring-tone watercolors.
The 1966 episodes capture that painterly sense of nostalgia better than just about any other movie I've seen. One obvious comparison I could make is Wild Strawberries; imagine Bergman's classic, drowned in Warhol pop, echoing song lyrics like Bob Dylan in his prime. It's a thing of beauty to watch the past and present intertwine, commenting on one another, dancing in grand celebration of the joys and sorrows of life.
How can I describe this to someone in America who only knows animation in the language of Walt Disney and Chuck Jones? Our first time watching Grave of the Fireflies is a lot like being hit in the chest with a cinder block. It's impossible not to be deeply moved, and I've discovered that Takahata achieves that feat in all his work. Fireflies, of course, has its poetic tragedy; this film affects me far more with its beauty and grace.
Looking at the life of this woman, we identify with her awkwardness and tragedies. Taeko-chan's life is a series of setbacks, losses great and small. Granted, she is on a path to her self-discovery, but it isn't until the very end that you realize the great unspoken conflict in the movie. Namely, how did this precocious, curious child become the polite woman in a stale desk job? Her story is much like the Japanese saying that the upright nail gets the hammer; it's Takahata's thinly-disguised stab at his country's conformist culture.
There are so many brilliant moments in the 1966 scenes that describing them would mean reciting the entire plot. I love the episode involving Taeko's crush on another boy in school; a baseball game is skillfully played as duel, chase, and showdown that captures all the magic and fear of first loves. I love the sequence involving the girls' emerging puberty and emergence into womanhood; it's both endearingly funny and sobering from a boy's point-of-view. I'm endlessly enamored with Taeko's short stab at acting, which leads to interest by the local college theatre group; it's a masterpiece of editing and pop montage, it turns horribly tragic, all set against the backdrop of a popular children's show called Hyokkori Hyoutan Jima. The final moment is a redemptive triumph that beautifully sums up Taeko's whole life, and maybe Takahata's, too. It may be the best scene he's ever filmed.
By contrast, Poro Poro's other half - the story set in the present - exchanges the faded pop nostalgia for luminous, bold colors, family drama, and an almost documentary realism. Taeko's arrival in the country brings her in the company of Toshio, a young man who walked away from the punishing city life for the simple life of a farmer. "Do you like this music?" he asks Taeko as he walks her to his car. "It's music for peasants. I like it because I'm a peasant, too." His cheery demeanor and thoughtful disposition begin a series of conversations between the two, very often in that tiny car.
Toshio's conversion to a more traditional rural life fits in with much of the nostalgia in Studio Ghibli's films; I strongly suspect this may also be a direct conversation with the audience. By 1991, Japan's bubble economy had burst, plunging the nation into a cycle of endless recession that only now is ending. Takahata (who doesn't quite share Hayao Miyazaki's legendary work ethic) has little respect for the unrelenting corporate culture. His world resides in the quieter, rural Japan of the past.
This life is neither shown to be light or trivial; it is hard work at long hours and little pay. A brilliantly moving sequence goes into great detail showing the process of picking safflowers to make cosmetic dyes, and then brings us to the fields at dawn as Taeko and her relatives pick flowers. Now maybe I was mistaken before; maybe this is the greatest scene Takahata has ever filmed.
This moment is so sparse, so perfectly zen, that we almost think we're watching nothing at all. But watch them pick flowers. Listen to that majestic Hungarian folk and choir music - such marvelous music! - and just wait, enjoy the moment. Gradually, slowly, almost in real-time, we see the sun peak behind the mountains, and it dawns on us: we're watching the sunrise. It's just about the most beautiful scene I've ever witnessed.
When you look at Isao Takahata's greatest works, you find a crucial common denominator: Yoshifumi Kondo. Kondo served as the character designer and animation director on Anne of Green Gables, a role he would reprise faithfully for years at Studio Ghibli. His drawing style is superb, absolutely perfect for a naturalist style. His sensibility is also close to Takahata's, who later remarked that both Grave of the Fireflies and Poro Poro could never be made without him. I say Kondo was the best character artist in the business, and his death in 1998 remains a terrible loss.
The official western title to this film is Only Yesterday, though I confess I much prefer the original Japanese title. It translates as "Memories of Falling Teardrops," which is far more poetic and betrays its strong Ozu influence. It seems fitting to me that both Japanese filmmakers should be mentioned in the same breath. This is a work of genius - Ozu painted with watercolors.
The Japan Times
7 August 1991
By Mark Schilling
Animation is a Japanese passion; kids here can choose from more than 30 half-hour cartoons a week, and two of those shows, "Sazaesan" and "Chibi Maruko-chan" dominated the ratings race until recently. (After enjoying a huge boom last year, the latter program has begun to fade.)
To an American, at least, their popularity may seem puzzling. Compared with Road Runner, Roger Rabbit, or even Bart Simpson, they look rather bland, tame, prosaic. Where's the action, the antics, the over-the-top surrealism? Where are the kicks for kids?
One answer is that these shows aren't only for children. "Chibi Maruko-chan" is designed as a trip down memory lane for twenty-something women. Though ostensibly set in a timeless present, "Sazaesan" is actually about the Japan of the High Growth era. Its intended audience is the whole family, from the grandmothers who are Sazaesan's real contemporaries to the tots who will watch virtually anything that moves.
Producer Hayao Miyazaki and director Isao Takahata were no doubt encouraged by the popularity of these shows when they decided to make "Omoide Poro-poro," based on the comic by Yuko Tone and Kei Okamoto. The story of an OL's solitary journey to the countryside and her past, it also reaches out to a wider audience than that for typical animated features.
Like "Chibi Maruko-chan," it focuses on the misadventures of a young girl and caters to Yuppie nostalgia for childhood. "Omoide Poro-poro," however, looks back farther, to 1966, when hemlines first rose to fantastic heights, the Beatles played the Budokan, and the heroine entered the fifth grade.
It also ventures farther in the direction of psychological and visual realism, while avoiding the self-consciously cute or cartoony. Taeko, the heroine, is a bit bored with her job, and uncertain about her future. Now 27, she senses that she is at a turning point, but doesn't know which direction to take. Marriage? Perhaps, but she has no particular candidate in mind.
Without knowing why, she begins to remember her tenth year - and find a self she had forgotten. She strikes us, in other words, as a complex, three-dimensional woman, not a manga character.
Also, though the countryside she visits is that of a city-bred imagination, all lush green loveliness and friendly salt-of-the-earth farmers, its trees, rocks and people are drawn with painstaking, occasionally striking, attention to detail. This meticulousness extends even to the narrative. When Taeko arrives in Yamagata Prefecture after a all-night train journey and begins to help her in-laws with their work of making lipstick coloring from safflowers, the film describes the process with the exhaustiveness of an NHK documentary.
Given the filmmakers' obsession with the actual, it may seem strange that they use animation at all. Why not film real rocks, trees and people, and save the labor of drawing them? The answer, I think, is that Miyazaki and Takahata, a veteran team who also collaborated in "Majo no Takkyubin (The Witch's Delivery Service)," the top-grossing Japanese film of 1989, see animation as a valid medium for subjects once reserved for film. They want their art to take its rightful place at the grownup's table.
They state their case vividly, charmingly, poignantly. The flashbacks, especially, work well; they not only have the right period look, down to Taeko's ballerina in her round plastic case, but the right feel as well. Taeko's first encounters with romance, stage fright, and the mysteries of menstruation are told with comic punch and a sharply observant eye.
Her adventures as an adult, however, are less amusing, more predictable. From the moment she meets a bright-eyed young farmer, the cousin of her brother-in-law, we know how her anomie is going to end. This section of the film, set in an all-too recent 1982, is basic *torendi dorama*. The farmer even delivers speeches on the decline of the countryside and the future potential of mechanized farming. He's good and earnest and sincere - and he made me long for 1966.
Like "Roger Rabbit," "Omoide Poro-poro" pushes the envelope of animated art. But it does so in a very Japanese way. It's true inspirations are not Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny, but the introspective, reflective characters who populate the classic "I" novel. Not Walt Disney and Warner Brothers, in other words, but Naoya Shiga.
23 May 2005
How many other animated films are you likely to see that would spend screen time watching characters eat a pineapple?
By Shane Burridge
Only Yesterday (1991 - 118m) The next time someone tells you that cartoons are for kids, shake your head sadly, mention ONLY YESTERDAY, and tell them how sorry you feel that they will never enjoy watching fine, mature works of animation.
Isao Takahata’s meditative story (he wrote and directed) could be seen as the finale of a progressive coming-of-age trilogy, all made by different directors and writers within Japan’s Studio Ghibli. What would thematically be the first, WHISPER OF THE HEART, deals with friendship, romance and the details of life in junior high school; the second, THE OCEAN WAVES, covers the same themes in high school and post-graduation; the third, ONLY YESTERDAY, finds a woman reminiscing about elementary school while she ponders her direction in life. All three films share an animation style devoted to everyday realism, as if they were live-action dramas with an animated overlay.
The premise of the story is simple: 27-year old Taeko has a ten-day holiday and is going to spend it working on a safflower farm in the country. During this time she recalls memories of when she was ten years old and living in the city with her parents and two older sisters. The first time I saw ONLY YESTERDAY I thought I’d missed the point of the flashback sequences, but realized, on second viewing, that I had been conditioned by Western cinema’s use of flashbacks as a means to comment on, or explain, the actions of the protagonist in the present. The connection in Takahata’s story is tenuous at best: the scenes in the past are visualized with a different color sense than the present and the 10-year old Taeko looks and acts so differently from the 27-year old version that it’s hard to imagine them as the same person.
But the fact is that people change when they age (just look at Michael Apted’s 7-UP documentary series if you want to see how dramatically childhood personalities can disappear in adulthood), and Takahata knows he doesn’t need to make the events in the past relevant to Taeko’s situation in the present. Taeko’s reminscences aren’t revelations, merely sketches that have stuck in her memory. How many other animated films are you likely to see that would spend screen time watching characters eat a pineapple, struggle with math homework, or discuss menstruation? And only Takahata/Ghibli would dare to animate a ten-minute dialogue scene between two characters sitting in a car.
While it’s true that the charm of ONLY YESTERDAY comes from the scenes in the past, the present-day story takes on a life of its own as the story develops and contributes greatly to its calm and contemplative mood. But what’s the point of the film’s back-and-forth structure? It’s not until after the final credits begin that it becomes plain, when both past and present coalesce (If you are lucky enough to see this in a cinema with an audience, it may pay to do as I did: inform the projectionist not to turn on the house lights when the end titles start). The point is not that Taeko is remembering specific incidents but is remembering her personality as a child, when everyday life was full of possibilities.
The predicted route of most films of this type (which, let’s face it, are filmed with real actors, not animated ones) is to provide the protagonist with a choice in the final reel, and usually that choice is between a practical decision and a fanciful one. We already know, for example, that Tom Hanks is going to jump recklessly into the ocean after mermaid Daryl Hannah in SPLASH. But Taeko’s choices in the story’s final scene are both reasonable; it would be realistic of her character to take either one, for better or worse. You may not realize how much you’ve been drawn in by this film until its poignant final moments, when you find that you really do care about these characters. Like Taeko, you’ll want to revisit these memories again.