Only Yesterday (impressions)
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24 February 2016
By Charles Solomon
The one Studio Ghibli film that was never distributed in the US, Isao Takahata's Only Yesterday (Omohide Poro Poro, literally "memories trickle down") is finally getting a long overdue release in a lively new English dub (opening in selected theaters this week). Although Takahata completed the film 25 years ago, it was only available to American viewers on the old bootleg Ghibli set. No one seems to know why Only Yesterday has been overlooked for so long. It was #1 film in Japan in 1991, and its appearance can only enhance the already enviable reputations of Takahata and Studio Ghibli.
Taeko (voice by Disney Ridley) has an agreeable, unexciting job and a tiny apartment in Tokyo in 1982. But she’s spent her entire life in the city; she’s ready for a change. Also, Taeko is 27 and single: at that time, an unmarried woman over 25 was referred to in Japan as “Christmas Cake”—something that’s still on the shelf after its sell-by date. On a whim, she decides to visit the cousins she stayed with as a girl in the Yamagata region, northwest of Tokyo.
Taeko joins her cousins working in the fields. She reflects on how generations of women tore their hands picking the thistle-like safflower blossoms that were used to make rouge—a compound so expensive, no farm woman could afford it. She enjoys the contact with the soil and the connection with the past.
But Taeko is surprised to discover she seems to have brought her fifth grade self with her. The spectral presence of the girl she once was triggers a flood of memories—discovering boys, the onset of puberty, adolescent friendships, trouble with math, arguments with her older sisters. The memories enable Takeo to explore who she is, and how she became a woman who lives in Tokyo, but loves the country.
In 1991, the Japanese countryside was already becoming depopulated. Young people were abandoning rural villages for the promise of a more exciting life in big cities, especially Tokyo. But one person resolutely resists the urban flight. Toshio (Dev Patel), an earnest, slightly clumsy young man with an easy laugh, is dedicated to sustainable, organic agriculture. It’s hard work, but he loves the land as much as Taeko does, and that shared affection leads to a maladroit courtship.
Takahata’s lyrical film celebrates the beauty of the forests and fields, but it's a restrained celebration, marked by the Japanese concept of mono no aware, an awareness of the inevitably transitory nature of life and beauty. In the flashback sequences, Takahata’s artists allow the watercolor backgrounds to fade into the surrounding white paper, suggesting the incompleteness of memories. The viewer knows the traditional farmer’s way of life is also fading away, although Toshio and Takeo will preserve a small part of it for as long as they can.
Daisy Ridley reportedly likes the Studio Ghibli films and had expressed interest in becoming a voice before the success of The Force Awakens. She gives Taeko a warmth and enthusiasm that quickly win the viewer over. Dev Patel brings a low-key charm to Toshio. If he sounds very British in some scenes, the differences in pronunciation suggest the regional dialect his character would use.
Like Takahata’s other films, Only Yesterday has a sense of personal vision often lacking in American features. Although it’s based on a manga by Hotaru Okamoto and Yuuku Tone, it feels like the work of an artist who had story he wanted to tell, rather than the product of committee meetings and focus group studies. At a time when the Hollywood studios have been criticized for its failure to present women’s stories, Only Yesterday offers a warmly engaging account of a woman learning who she wants to be by exploring who she was.
Anime News Network
24 February 2016
By Justin Sevakis
Taeko is an office worker at an ad agency, working during the early 80s bubble economy in Japan. Her heart's not really into it; rather she dreams of the same thing she's dreamt of as a child: a countryside home and the quiet, farming life. This would have stayed just a dream if her older sister hadn't married into a farming family. Delighted that she now has an extended family out in the boonies, Taeko has decided to vacation there and help out with the farm. She has also made an acquaintance with Toshio, the young man who stands to inherit the family farm. He's a nice guy with a big smile and an understanding disposition, not to mention a taste for eclectic music.
In the early 80s the organic farming movement was just getting started, and the concept of eco-tourism was a completely foreign one. But the family farm is, in fact, an organic farm (something Toshio cares a lot about) and Taeko's trip is most certainly eco-tourism. Immersing herself in the history and the labor of the farm, she pitches in as they harvest safflower and thoroughly enjoys herself. But at night, when it's quiet, she can't help but think about the past and the unresolved memories of one particular year when she was in sixth grade, on the cusp of womanhood with all the awkwardness that implies. What she's not prepared for is that someone on the farm might be able to provide her with some perspective, and that these memories might be bubbling to the surface for a reason.
Only Yesterday is possibly the least appreciated anime in the Studio Ghibli catalog, probably because it stands out so oddly among the rest of the films (not to mention anime in general). It's much more an art-house indie drama in both tone and scope. It's also frequently made fun of for its slow pace, its melodramatic Japanese title (which could be accurately -- but ridiculously -- translated as "Memories: Boo-hoo") and its use of a Japanese cover of the old Bette Midler song "The Rose." I'll admit, the film would likely bore the average younger viewer. And yet, to ignore it is to ignore one of Ghibli's most beautiful works. The lush scenery of Yamagata Prefecture is sung not only by the visuals but the eclectic soundtrack. As Taeko's musings wander from the love of farming and its history to her past, the artwork becomes faded and the backgrounds half-drawn, as if fading in from a distant memory, its fine details long lost but its essence fresh as the day it was made.
Takahata is easily one of my favorite filmmakers, and he strikes ne'er a wrong note in this delicate film, peaceful and serene despite its lead character's hangups. Taeko never comes across as neurotic but more as simply thoughtful, and when Toshio talks her down from her quietly obsessive dark places, we don't lose patience with her. Toshio has no idea what's going on with her, but he's able to reassure her and point out the sometimes quite obvious things she's been missing. We feel as reassured as she does. Her delicate, regret-permeated mood is conveyed right from the first frames, with Masaru Hoshi's achingly beautiful piano melody and the quick flashes of what was once her life.
These are not themes we're used to broaching in animated form, which might make you wonder why Only Yesterday should be an anime at all. Why should a story like this be animated when the medium only alienates the art house crowd that might support it? I would argue that a story like this must be animated. Beyond the usual layer of abstraction provided by animation, that we might cease to wonder about actors and sets and shooting days and more fully lose ourselves in the world and its characters, the film plays with subjective realities in a way that would be perhaps impossible to pull off as well with physical people. We don't simply flash back to Taeko's past, but the past dominates her present and begins to cross over. We see the world not as it is, but as she sees it, busy internal life and all. It might be considered a precursor to Satoshi Kon's later examinations of intermingling between fantasy and reality, particularly in Millennium Actress.
While Omohide Poro Poro was originally a manga, it has little to do with the film version. Hotaru Okamoto and Yuko Tone's 3-volume manga is simply a bunch of nostalgic anecdotal stories of 10-year-old Taeko, with little cohesive story or theme. It was Takahata's idea to use the Adult Taeko of the early 80s as an engine to drive the nostalgia into something bigger. Its maturity, its reassuring themes, and concepts of memories as redemption can be ascribed purely to him.
It's a profound notion that our past serves not to impede us, but to be a driving force behind us; not a challenge to overcome but a support for the narrative of our lives. Our personal histories too often seem like traps that we must somehow escape. Takahata hints that perhaps there is a deeper purpose and a natural flow to those memories and that they might serve an instructive, positive purpose if we'd only listen to them. It's a reassurance that I need every few years. The ending scene, as credits roll, pulls a completely unexpected visual surprise on us, and its symbolism is positively life-affirming. It forces a complete re-evaluation of the events of the film, both from Taeko's point of view and ours. Its message is simple: your past is not trying to hold you back. It may, in fact, be leading you somewhere your heart desires, should you choose to listen to it.
So, in periods of transition and doubt, I pull out my DVD and immerse myself in that idyllic countryside, that late 1960s Tokyo, and the childhood of a fellow neurotic. And I find myself, as promised by the title, a sobbing mess. If I've gotten to the point where I've popped in this movie yet again, I'm in serious need of that little pep talk. Rare is the film that I can truly say has such a profound resonance in me, that has healed me on a soul-deep level and contributed to who I am as a person. For each of these films, I am unspeakably grateful. For me, Omohide Poro Poro may be the most important one.
Much has been made of the film's new English dub, as it features newly crowned Jedi and fan favorite Daisy Ridley as adult Taeko. Ridley is easily the best part of the English version. She has a warmth to her that suits Taeko well, but more importantly, she allows Taeko's insecurities and uneasiness with herself to be an essential part of the character without making her weak or robbing her of her agency. Child actor Alison Fernandez voices 5th grade Taeko, and is also quite strong in her performance, although that role is obviously nowhere near as meaty as Ridley's. A mix of other kids and adult women (including a few familiar names) round out the younger half of the cast.
Unfortunately, the rest of the dub comes nowhere close to Ridley's level of skill -- either in front of or behind the microphone. Dev Patel is a little flat and bored-sounding as Toshio, but the biggest problem is the fact that he speaks with a thick Londoner accent -- and absolutely no one else, including Toshio's immediate family, speaks in anything but standard American English. It's distracting and really takes you out of the film. Other issues are harder to put a finger on. Takahata's original voice direction had some very subtle, nuanced touches: 1966 sounds far more like "normal anime," with its heightened reality and bold emotions, than 1982 does. If you look away from the screen, conversations between adult Taeko and Toshio, and indeed everybody from those segments, sound indistinguishable from a well-made live action drama. It's an extremely naturalistic sound that heightens the contrast between the two eras and allows a lot of the nuance in the characters to take root. The film cannot bloom fully without such delicate performances.
And while the dub has some fine work -- a telephone call between Taeko and her older sister earlier in the film stands out as particularly well done -- most of the nuance simply didn't make it through unscathed. ADR director Jamie Simone (Naruto, Tiger & Bunny, When Marnie Was There) simply wasn't able to recapture that level of naturalism in the sterility of a one-person recording booth. There is almost no audible distinction between the two time periods in the English version. The dub is well-made, and the screenplay adaptation by David Freedman is downright fantastic in parts, but as with Takahata's Grave of the Fireflies, a good English dub is simply not subtle enough to get the point across. The naturalism of his voice direction is lost. Diction is too clean and perfect, performances lack depth, and it's harder to fully emotionally invest in the world of the film.
In the end, attempting to adapt a work like this into English is a bit of a fool's errand. It's so steeped in its time and place -- both somewhat foreign to English speakers -- that even the smallest touches end up taking away from the film. Even translating the opening credits, which originally laid vertical text across a burlap background, can no longer evoke similar openings to the films of Yasujiro Ozu if they're presented in English. I'm not sure we could've ever expected an English dub to live up to the performances of the original film, but as Only Yesterday is more of an art house drama than an anime as we normally think of it, watching it dubbed feels akin to watching a dub of a foreign live action film: just unnatural enough to sink into that uncanny valley.
That said, Only Yesterday is perhaps the best-made film in the entire Ghibli canon, and that is saying a lot. It's the work of an assured, incredible array of talent. Its availability in North America, even some 25 years after it was produced, is something to cheer about.
25 February 2016
By Noel Murray
To get what makes Isao Takahata’s 1991 classic Only Yesterday so special, look at the pineapple scene. Based on an autobiographical manga series by author Hotaru Okamoto (with art by Yuuko Tone), the movie follows a 27-year-old Tokyo woman named Taeko, who takes a vacation in the country in 1982. Throughout the trip, she thinks back to 1966, when she was a fifth grader. In one of those memories, her family buys its first-ever fresh pineapple, and saves it for Sunday dinner, so that it’ll be more special. But the fruit isn’t as soft or sweet as the canned kind, so everyone heaves a disappointed sigh and gives their slices to Taeko, who gamely keeps eating, determined to enjoy something she’d been looking forward to all week.
Only Yesterday is animated, but rarely cartoony, in either its design or its storytelling. Most of the movie consists of moments as memorable and as elliptical as the one with the pineapple. Taeko remembers the awkwardness of pre-teen crushes, and the fiercely fought student council debates over lunchroom rules, and that time that she flunked a fractions test and overheard her mother say that she’s “not a normal kid.” These vignettes aren’t meant to be funny, per se. They’re supposed to be real—or at least as real as any drawings can be.
For the last 25 years, Only Yesterday has been the great lost Studio Ghibli film, at least as far as American audiences were concerned. Though the movie was a massive hit in Japan, it’s just this year arriving stateside via GKids, who’ve prepared a new English dub—with The Force Awakens’ Daisy Ridley as the adult Taeko and Dev Patel as a man she falls for on her retreat. Until now, Ghibli fans who wanted to see Only Yesterday have had to rely on imports, bootlegs, big-city retrospectives, and the one time Turner Classic Movies aired the film during a salute to the studio. Walt Disney has released other offbeat Ghiblis over the past couple of decades—including Takahata’s Pom Poko and My Neighbors The Yamadas—but this is one of the few that it left on the shelf.
It’s not hard to understand why. There’s never been much precedent for a movie like Only Yesterday in American multiplexes or video stores (back when there were video stores). Half of the film offers the pleasantly meandering tale of a young woman looking for some purpose in her life—a story geared more toward adults, in other words, but in an animated form that many mature American moviegoers still find inherently juvenile. The other half consists of the kind of anecdotal childhood memories common to young-adult novels, although the incidents Taeko recalls—like the one time she made her father angry enough to slap her—aren’t all exactly “fun.” A good long stretch of Only Yesterday is devoted to fifth-grade girls learning about menstruation, and how they live in perpetual fear that the boys will think they’re having their periods. Disney probably had no idea what to do with that.
But it’s that betwixt-and-between quality that’s made Only Yesterday a favorite among the American Ghibli fans who’ve found a way to see it. The film has often been compared to the work of Yasujiro Ozu, in that so much of it is about the at-times-stifling domestic politics of one middle-class Tokyo family. And the deliberate pace—quietly, keenly observational—is definitely Ozu-esque. But the unflinching depiction of pre-adolescence as a time of anxiety, mood swings, and deep embarrassment is akin to a Judy Blume novel. And the 1982 scenes are reminiscent of old Hollywood romances like Now, Voyager or Summertime, where a woman takes a trip and figures out who she wants to be.
The more modern-day sections were Takahata’s additions to the source material. Only Yesterday was the follow-up to his critically acclaimed WWII film Grave Of The Fireflies, which was also based on a memoir about childhood. But Takahata had a harder time connecting to Okamoto’s memories of The Beatles and miniskirts, so he imagined Taeko’s adult life, introducing a subplot where her she meets a man, Toshio, who talks at length about the history and future of Japanese agriculture—impressing her with his connection to the simpler way of living that she envies.
Visually, Takahata distinguishes Only Yesterday’s two eras by having his animators illustrate the 1960s with spare backgrounds, pale colors, and plain faces, while the 1980s pop with fine, vivid detail. That experimentation with style and design—sometimes subtle, sometimes jarring—was common practice for Takahata, all the way up to his most recent film, The Tale Of The Princess Kaguya. Here, the simpler approach to the past makes each element stand out more, replicating the way memories are often selective.
In Japanese, the movie’s title roughly translates as “memories come tumbling down,” but Only Yesterday works better, because of its double meaning. Taeko is haunted by her younger self, because so much that happened back then is still fresh in her mind, like a wound that won’t heal. But the story is also about her realizing that she can let go of that past—with all of its attendant guilt, anger, shame, and expectation—because “yesterday” is ultimately inconsequential. Only Yesterday can sometimes seem a little too random in what it chooses to show, but it has a cumulative power as Taeko comes to understand that the past that shaped her needn’t define her. That’s a remarkably sophisticated theme for any film, let alone a cartoon. But then what else should we expect from a filmmaker so precise that he’d spend five minutes describing the exact texture and taste of a piece of fruit?
The Film Stage
7 January 2016
By Michael Snydel
Only Yesterday originally came out more than two decades ago in Japan through Studio Ghibli, but Isao Takahata’s mature, humane slice of life drama couldn’t feel more achingly relevant to the narrative concerns of this decade, and cinema’s renewed interest in the experiences of spiritually adrift young women staking their own path. And even while Only Yesterday is treading familiar emotional terrain, it feels far from programmatic.
Adapted from the manga Omoide Poro Poro, which translates to “memories trickle down,” Only Yesterday, centers on Taeko Okajima, a single, late 20-something who’s lapsed into memories of her fifth grade self in search of what’s missing from her life. Taeko is a self-professed career woman, working in a nondescript but successful job in Tokyo, but she’s not immune to the pressures of getting married, and her societal expectations as a woman. Every conversation with her family is now sprinkled with daggering assumptions about her future as a spinstress,
Takahata thankfully isn’t interested in placing Taeko on a collision course with romance as an end. There is eventually an unexpected romance that creeps into the film through the introduction of a far-flung family friend named Toshio, but it’s a matter of serendipity more than the crux of the film, and the character’s ethos intersects with the larger themes of the film.
Daisy Ridley, Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ meteoric breakout, leads the voice cast of this English dub as Taeko’s adult voice. And while Ridley’s performance in Star Wars was in part so memorable because of her expressive body language, she shows an innate skill for voice acting. As Taeko, she brings a velvet, dynamic warmth to the character whose line readings at any given moment can communicate either mournful nostalgia or earned wisdom.
Dev Patel, as well, manages a tricky balance with the character of Toshio, a romantic interest who’s a gawky goofball, but also has an emergent flintiness when it comes to his passions. For some animation fans, dub has become a dirty word for fear that it dilutes the purity, and while there are a few vocal performances from the child actors that verge on screechy or stilted, this is a vocal cast that mostly enhances more than distracts from the storytelling.
As with latter period Studio Ghibli, the animation is stunning without needing to rely on fantastical imagery. There’s moments of magical realism like a balletic flight through the sky after talking to a crush, or contorting optical illusions in the grass, but they’re clearly moments of visual exaggeration.
Being set in two time periods – the late 60s and 80s – the animation also has its own respective signatures for each. In the past, the animation has a brighter, blinding lightness with a shallow focus, and enshrouded white corners. The characters are drawn with an expressionistic outlining, and there’s a clear contrast between the character designs and the sky.
The backgrounds as well have a transparently 2D quality that almost presents the memories like their own sound stages. The animation in the present tense, meanwhile, relies on a more naturalistic lighting and less elevated color palette. Elements of fantasy aren’t an intrusion into the frame, but an extension of the landscape.
Set in the 60s and the 80s in Tokyo and Yamagata, Only Yesterday is one long dialogue between the past and the present, and a larger looming question of where Taeko belongs. This is a journey of self-actualization, but this isn’t a path along a series of pre-determined points in Taeko’s personal history.
When the time of personal understanding finally arrives, this is the rare film that doesn’t tell the character what the moment means. Whether it’s through the film’s self-awareness of memory, or the character’s ability to view these moments with such inward and outward clarity, there’s an agency here that doesn’t feel pre-ordained or phony.
That’s in part because Takahata creates characters that feels so entirely lived-in. The time period and female perspective are deeply ingrained into the story’s point of view, with large portions of the film dedicated to not only the awkwardness and confusion of a first crush from an adolescent’s perspective, but a compassionate view into how young girls feel the need to hide their period from other classmates.
Takahata has a surprising eye and ear for how kids, and especially women, view and talk about these subjects. He doesn’t shy away from the details in terms of either Taeko’s self-consciousness or the social ecosystem of shame and acceptance. And this snapshot isn’t the set up for a punchline at all, but instead a reminiscence about the strength of the sisterhood Taeko felt with both friends and people she didn’t think she even wanted to know.
With so much of the story being enmeshed in the place between memory and the present, there’s many chances for the film to misstep into belabored sentimentality or forced revelations, but Takahata maintains an assured but light hand in keeping the segmentation of the film balanced, but still colorfully specific.
The film’s gaze is firmly aimed at Taiko’s navel, but these beats of searching rarely feel indulgent as much as a method of filling in the margins of Taiko’s personality. Even a scene that threads in economic disparity through the perspective of an outlier character doesn’t come across as a self-conscious lecture, but as a moment for empathetic reflection about how and why that character wears a social mask. The past bleeds into the present, but there isn’t the sense that the story is just tallying a checklist of past experiences to move the present forward. Rather, there’s a relationship of important and superfluous moments paired together.
Takahata’s cinematic voice brings to mind auteurs as disparate as Oliver Assayas in his personal as political approach or Yasujirô Ozu in his view of the intimate mundane. For instance, one of the most individually satisfying flashbacks comes late as Taeko reminisces about an aborted acting career, but what initially appears to be another jigsaw piece of Taeko’s larger motivations is merely a richly realized tangent.
Ozu’s name is sure to be thrown around regardless considering that Only Yesterday is passionate about some of the most attendant themes of Japanese cinema, namely the karmic relationship inherent in being nature’s stewards. Coming decades before society is consumed by a compulsive fear about the lack of organic materials in our every meal, the film drives home a moral responsibility in respecting the Earth without ever directly referring to this goal.
The country life holds a life force that functions beyond merely a change of scenery for Taeko’s character. Drawn with a twinkling beauty, the pastoral landscapes of Yamagata are presented with a haunted magnetism that evoke Terrence Malick, especially when accompanied by Eastern European choral chanting. All of this visual fawning doesn’t feel like lip service to past masters, but rather a small part of a passionate, deeply personal story about how to let the past recede, and embrace the present.
Due to its unavailability stateside (a sole subtitled showing in 2006 on TCM was an event for animation fans) and especially its focus on a female protagonist and a grounded narrative, Only Yesterday has built a reputation as one of the best and most unique anime films of all time.
That’s a lofty reputation, and one that ensures that it will disappoint some viewers expecting a grandiose masterpiece. Only Yesterday is unabashedly modest, but in its twin dialogues between the past and the present, and the undying lure of the country and the city, it’s a singularly specific story whose message echoes decades later.
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.
Hayao Miyazaki Discussion Group
18 August 1992
By Bryan C. Wilkinson
Edited and re-formatted by Steven Feldman (with the cooperation of Bryan C. Wilkinson) through to July 22, 1992.
Posted to the Hayao Miyazaki Discussion Group on 18 August 1992 by Steven Feldman.
...there would be no point in writing an animated film that places the burden of subtle acting on the animator. This goal may never be reached; in spite of the best efforts of the staff at the Disney studio (and they have included some of the best draftsmen in the profession), very subtle acting may never be possible to attain in this medium. --Shamus Culhane, in Animation From Script to Screen
The existing order is complete before the new work arrives; for order to persist after the supervention of novelty, the WHOLE existing order must be, if ever so slightly, altered; and so the relations, proportions, values of each work of art are readjusted; and this is conformity between the old and new. --T.S. Eliot in "Tradition and the Individual Talent"
While many animators and animation critics are moping about how Beauty and the Beast should have won the Oscar for Best Picture this year, an animated film named My Neighbor Totoro changed Japanese history three years ago by winning the Japanese equivalent to the Oscar - the Kinema Jumpo Award - for Best Picture of 1988, while yet another took fifth place.
My Neighbor Totoro, which was directed by Hayao Miyazaki, was a film that captured the nation's soul and imagination by reminding it of its lost roots through the story of two children's moving to an old house in the country and their encounters with residing spirits. The film has since taken the place of The Seven Samurai as the nation's most popular film, according to recent polls. Interestingly, the film that took fifth place was made by the same studio - in fact by Miyazaki's mentor and partner, Isao Takahata. Its name was Grave of the Fireflies. An anti-war film based on a real-life story about two dying children orphaned during the bombing of Tokyo [sic], Grave of the Fireflies has since gained much international acclaim, including at the 1991 Annecy festival. One critic noted that it used animation to portray the child characters in a depth that just wouldn't be possible in live action.
The two partners, who have had several acclaimed works between them over the past 25 years, afterward teamed up for Kiki's Delivery Service (with Miyazaki directing and Takahata producing, as had been the case with Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, "Laputa", and - of course - "Totoro"). Based on a story by Eiko Kadono, this film is a coming-of-age story about a 13-year-old witch, and is meant to be a direct allegory for the increasing number of Japanese teen-aged girls ousted from their homes at an early age. The 1989 film quickly became the highest-ever grossing movie in Japan, and Miyazaki himself has taken the place of Akira Kurosawa as Japan's most popular director. On a humorous note, both "Totoro" and "Kiki" have also since become two of the films the Disney studios employ in educating new animators.
Miyazaki's strong directing style and philosophy is definitely an extension of his early work under Takahata in the sixties and most of the seventies (although he is also influenced by western work including that of the Fleischer Brothers and the comparatively recent works of Jean "Moebius" Giraud). Takahata's early directing career involved making fantasy films with a strong verisimilitude, and research for his works required him and Miyazaki to span the globe in order to capture the feel of the stories' locations. This field-research is still practiced by Studio Ghibli (their production company) today. As the years progressed, the inner coherence of each work heightened, and eventually, Miyazaki separated to direct his own realist fantasy films. Takahata's very strong humanist values (which helped gain him his early popularity as a director of children's stories) were shared by Miyazaki, so in this way, too, Miyazaki continued Takahata's progress (his second film, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, gained the endorsement of the World Wildlife Fund in 1984). Takahata, meanwhile, seemed to realize Miyazaki's potential in the genre, and decided to go all-out after work in full realism, which he had begun by the time Miyazaki left for his own work. The two have created from scratch a whole new animation movement that has nothing in common with the overblown commercial Japanese animation that has gained some popularity in America. One might even be tempted to call their movement "Shun'nami Anime" (New Wave animation).
Thus, it is particularly interesting to see what their latest collaboration is; with Miyazaki producing Takahata's 1991 film, Omohide Poro Poro (Remembering the Sounds of Falling Teardrops), their usual corresponding roles have been reversed.
The result is stunning - certainly, "Teardrops" is the most beautiful cel-animated feature film I have ever seen.
The film succeeds on several levels: it is aesthetically beautiful and it has a tremendous depth of realism, yet at the same time it never fails to make use of the potential of the animation medium to actually heighten the experience of the film in ways not achievable in a live-action one. Partly based on a semi-autobiographical comic written by Hotaru Okamoto and drawn by Yuuko Tone, the movie's characters have an honesty to them I've only encountered in the neo-realist and new wave cinema of Europe and China. Like Grave of the Fireflies, it is a mature and psychologically resonant work.
"Teardrops" makes use of acclaimed professional actors - not just voice actors - and Takahata has taken this cue to the animators to bring forth some of the most subtle and sensitive character animation ever done in a feature film (thus humorously taking a cue from the film itself at a point where the main character is approached as a ten-year-old to act professionally after her subtly-acted reinterpretation of a part in a school play). Yet, Takahata never resorts to the pseudo-rotoscoping that is the hallmark of Disney character animation. Miyazaki had enough influence in the film's production to bring his stylish humorous wit into it, as well. Even the music - comprised of original work, Slavic tunes (enjoyed by Toshio, one of the characters in the film), and pop hits indigenous to the film's two time frames - creates a rich feeling of depth. "Hungarian Rhapsody", a classical piece renowned for its use in some classic Warner Brothers cartoons, shows up in service of a comical scene.
The film delivers many of the values of their best prior works, and yet much more effectively than ever before. Time itself is masterfully manipulated, creating startling temporal (and occasionally spatial) juxtapositions which would appear affected in a live-action film. Crucial yet lengthy "real time" scenes (not unlike the work of more experimental cel-animation film directors of Japan, such as the "dark" animation of Rintaro or Mamoru Oshii) - that would normally be all but unthinkable in an animated film - also stand out.
"Teardrops" is a story that stretches back and forth between the life of Taeko Okajima as a 10-year-old girl in 1966 and her life in 1982 at 27. Her 1982 world is portrayed in the neo-realist character style of Grave of the Fireflies, combined with the rich photo-like oil-painted backgrounds of "Totoro"; the 1966 characters are rendered in a more Miyazaki-like caricature style, with bright watercolor backgrounds that fade out on the edges of the field to create an effective "limited focus" look that has no precedent in either director's films. The milieu depicted in the two time periods literally overlap and intermix at points, particularly when the actions of the younger Taeko have their strong repercussions on the life of the older one. It is difficult to single out any particular parts of the film for examples due to the "folkiness" of the narrative style (i.e. detailing continuous day-to-day ordinary life as opposed to overt dramaticism), not to mention that describing the visual and temporal qualities is hard to begin with.
Regardless, the story details 1982 Taeko's sabbatical to the country town of Yamagata from her work as a businesswoman in Tokyo, and crosses her current experiences with that of the trials and few rewards of her fifth-grade schooldays. A condensation of most of this story would be as follows:
Younger 10-year-old Taeko (1966) finds that her friends are spending their vacations visiting relatives outside Tokyo. Her own family has no kin outside the area so she ends up taking a trip to a public bath instead. Older 27-year-old (1982) Taeko is making plans on a sabbatical to her older sister's in-law's farm. Older Taeko passes through fruit stands - and younger Taeko's family encounters their first pineapple at a time when foreign fruits are scarce and expensive, including their favorite, the banana. They are baffled as to how it is prepared for eating.
Older Taeko boards her train, and younger Taeko has her first crush. Older Taeko wonders about why her 1966 life seems so significant, and younger Taeko has an unusual first encounter with menstruation.
Older Taeko is picked up by a distant cousin (her sister's husband's cousin's cousin), Toshio. They drive to the farm, she learns of his own change from a business life to the farm life - a job he enjoys very much. Having never met someone who enjoys their work so much before, this leaves a strong impression on Taeko.
She meets her sister's in-laws and helps in the traditional harvesting of benibana flowers. Her sister's husband's niece Naoko stubbornly tries to convince her mother to buy her fashionable sports shoes, and 1966 Taeko gets into a dispute with her family over a handbag. 1982 Taeko has a lunch date with Toshio, where she relates her trouble doing math in school with her social life. 1966 Taeko has math trouble and is forced into being tutored by her sister.
1982 Taeko takes a break with Toshio and Naoko to watch a sunset, and sees crows flying by. It reminds her of a scene in a school play. Younger Taeko performs in the play and gains a chance to act professionally, only to be denied it by her father.
1982 Taeko is approached with the prospect of an arranged marriage to Toshio, and confronts her fear of being trapped into an unwanted life. She transforms into 1966 Taeko and relives one of her deepest regrets. 1982 Taeko confronts Toshio with her 1966 dilemma...
This hints at the complex temporal balancing act that continues through the film, though it is impossible to sum up most of the movie's two hours easily in such a generalized fashion. The amount of detail, beauty, animation style and imagery in this film simply defies words: the silent, unvoiced emotions of the characters; the real-feeling traveling scenes; the subtle expressions of interacting characters; the beauty of a sunrise, a single flower or a whole field of them, or the entire atmosphere of the country.
The uniquely cinematographic feel of a Studio Ghibli film has reached a new peak with this movie, while not losing any of the magic that their animation has always had from the start. Interestingly, it was just shown this year along with Miyazaki's My Neighbor Totoro at the Cannes Film Festival, so maybe Western critics of Japanese films will finally take notice. It should also be interesting to see what Studio Ghibli's latest film, "The Red Pig" [Porco Rosso, ed.] (in the works), will turn out like. Directed by Miyazaki and produced by Takahata, press releases have indicated further overlapping of the two men's work. In the meantime, "Remembering the Sounds of Falling Teardrops" [Only Yesterday, ed.] is a new (and already classic) masterwork that effectively fuses the genius of two of the world's greatest animators into one. But more importantly, it is a film that shows that the greatest story of all is the one within each and every one of us.
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.
The Los Angeles Times
25 February 2016
By Kenneth Turan
Intimate and somehow magical, "Only Yesterday" is a classic of Japanese animation, made 25 years ago but never before released in this country. To see it now is to understand the reason for the delay and why the wait has been very much worth it.
Certainly, "Only Yesterday's" pedigree couldn't be more impressive. Its director, Isao Takahata, is one of Japan's great animators, most recently responsible for 2013's Oscar-nominated "The Tale of the Princess Kaguya."
In 1985, Takahata joined with Japan's fantasy animation master Hayao Miyazaki ("My Neighbor Totoro," "Spirited Away") to co-found the legendary Studio Ghibli. Both men share a preference for intrepid girls as protagonists but, in this film at least, Takahata finds the emotional complications of the everyday more alluring than any fantasy world.
The story of a young woman who moves back and forth between childhood memories and the dilemmas of her current life, "Only Yesterday" is a realistic, personal story made universal in a delicate way.
Although it might have baffled American audiences back in 1991, when Disney's considerably more rousing "Beauty and the Beast" ruled the roost, "Only Yesterday's" ability to find the beauty and allure in ordinary experience could well strike a chord today.
Screening in subtitled and dubbed versions, "Only Yesterday" is based on a Japanese graphic novel and, especially in its childhood scenes, has very much the flavor of remembered experience. It begins in the Tokyo of 1982, where a 27-year-old office worker is about to begin a vacation. No, she tells her supervisor, she's not going abroad, she's going to spend time on a farm in the country.
This would be Taeko ("Star Wars: The Force Awakens'" Daisy Ridley in the dubbed version, Miki Imai in the original). Unmarried and having just turned down a suitor, she feels a bit at loose ends and has always wished she lived in the country.
So Taeko makes arrangements to visit the farm of her brother-in-law's family where she's worked before, this time to pick safflowers, plants whose vivid red petals are traditionally used to make rouge.
Because yearning for the countryside connects Taeko with her childhood, first thinking about the trip and then actually riding on the train to her destination trigger recollections of what life was like for her 10-year-old, fifth-grade self. (Voiced by Alison Fernandez in the English dub, Youko Honna in the original.)
The youngest person in a household that includes a somber father, a worried mother, two older sisters and a distant grandmother, Taeko has all kinds of memories of her childhood, from the first pineapple the family tried (they can't figure out how to eat it) to a pitched battle with a sister over a coveted enamel purse.
Even more intense emotions come into play at school, where Taeko has to cope with boys who relentlessly tease the girls about menstruation as well as her first serious, almost wordless crush on a popular, baseball-playing classmate.
When the two manage to successfully exchange a few words, Taeko's emotions soar and the film, which has more of a watercolor look in these sequences than in the more vivid present day, wonderfully captures that feeling by showing her literally floating on air.
Frustrated as well as warmed by these memories ("It's like traveling with a 10-year-old" she grouses to herself) the adult Taeko, with a job she neither loves nor hates, starts to wonder if she has been true to her more adventurous younger self.
Complicating these thoughts is the presence of a handsome young organic farmer named Toshio ("Slumdog Millionaire's" Dev Patel and Toshio Yanagiba), whose enthusiasm for his work acts as a tonic. "It's fascinating to raise living things," he tells her. "If you take care of them, they'll do the best for us." He also shrewdly observes that when city people say they love nature, they are invariably talking about landscapes that have been created by man.
A film with a mind of its own, "Only Yesterday" finds time to go into detail about the history and harvesting of safflower plants, but mostly it focuses on Taeko's emotions as she struggles to make peace between her childhood and her current situation.
Considered a landmark in Japanese animation for the realism of its drama, "Only Yesterday's" emphasis on the rhythms and events of the everyday means its style takes a bit of getting used to. But once you get on this film's wavelength, it has you for the duration.
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.
By John W. Yung
16 April 1992
To get an idea of how good "Omoide Poro Poro" [ Only Yesterday, ed.] is, one could start by looking at the fact that it was the number one animated movie in Japan for 1991. The next fact to consider is the presence of Hayao Miyazaki as the film's producer. The director, Isao Takahata, is a former student of Miyazaki, but as this movie (and his previous project, "The Grave of the Fireflies") shows, Takahata is well on his way to becoming a master, if he isn't considered one by now.
There are signs of Miyazaki's artistic influence in the character designs and backgrounds Takahata uses in "Omoide Poro Poro." The clean, simple faces of the characters are reminiscent of Miyazaki's style, and the colors used in the production are subdued. However, the difference is that Takahata's work appears even more detailed than Miyazaki's because Takahata's direction tends toward realism. The attention to details is reflected in various places throughout the film from subtle human motion like the slight shake of the head to nostalgic displays like Beatles posters and old TV shows to ordinary physics like the reflection of buildings in a swinging car door window. The sum of the effects is astounding and enhances the world presented to us in "Omoide Poro Poro."
Takahata focuses on personal and inter-personal relationships in this tale of a woman's reunion with her family. The movie's blurb, translated as "I am going on a journey with myself," hints at the poignant scenes in "Omoide Poro Poro," most of which are flashbacks to the childhood of the main character, Taeko. Taeko's memories have strong emotional contents which is communicated to the viewer through common experiences from joy and love to sorrow and disappointment. The characters break the language barrier with crafted responses filled with hints from subtle, natural gestures and from voice intonations that is often taken for granted. Knowledge of the Japanese language is certainly helpful, as usual, but ignorance does not completely interfere with the enjoyment of the film.
"Omoide Poro Poro" may have been aimed toward Japanese adults, but it certainly carries appeal for people of any age and language. There are no giant robots nor monsters wrecking destruction upon Tokyo in this story, just a woman discovering herself and her place in the world. At the end of this entertaining movie, one may wonder if there's a child in all of us, ever hopeful of the decisions we make based upon our experiences in the journey of life.
24 February 2016
25 years after its original debut, the lesser-known feature is still timeless
By Sam Byford
Only Yesterday couldn't be more appropriately named. The intimate, spare drama from Hayao Miyazaki's Studio Ghibli first premiered in Japan in 1991, and in the 25 years since has somehow never seen an American release until now. But its familiar tale of finding your place in a fast-moving world feels like it could have been written last week, and together with forward-thinking direction from Isao Takahata (Grave of the Fireflies, The Tale of Princess Kaguya), Only Yesterday remains a poignant classic in the 21st century.
Only Yesterday follows a woman called Taeko across two different timelines. In 1982, she's in her late 20s and working an office job in Tokyo, and escapes to the countryside for a break from the incessant demands to settle down and marry. In 1966, she's 10 years old and dealing with the universal troubles of school and family life. Though the 1982 setting is the primary storyline of Only Yesterday, Taeko's memories of 1966 often break through to the present and inform her adult psyche, sometimes in the middle of a thought or sentence.
"It's hard to watch without memories of your own childhood flooding back"
This is more seamless than it might have been in other hands, thanks to the gorgeous, stylistically purposeful art from Takahata's animation team. The 1982 scenes are awash in vivid color and detail, from the real-life branding on office equipment to the actual Japanese magazines in Taeko's apartment. Takahata's characters' faces are drawn with more lines than you tend to find in anime, allowing for more nuanced expression. Contrasting with that style are Taeko's memories of 1966, which are rendered in washed-out colors with simpler, more typical anime-style faces and minimalist, unfinished backgrounds.
Much of the movie's running time is devoted to these flashback sequences, and although they're visually less complex, Takahata's sharp screenplay infuses them with psychological nuance. The depictions of seemingly trivial childhood occurrences, like munching your way through a disappointing meal or getting caught in a whirlwind of schoolyard gossip, are so keenly observed that it's hard to watch Only Yesterday without memories of your own flooding back. Taeko in 1982 gets the feeling that her 10-year-old self has come along for the ride on her trip to the country, and the way she learns from the past to arrive at a point of self-discovery in the present is both touching and relatable.
"Anyone who's ever considered giving up their city lifestyle will relate"
Firmly grounded in reality, Only Yesterday might not have the moving castles, no-faced ghosts, or flying warrior princesses that mark much of Ghibli's best-known work, but it shares many thematic elements with a lot of the studio's output. The most obvious one is a preoccupation with ecology; characters frequently go on esoteric tangents about the benefits of organic farming or the economic inequality inherent in historical safflower-rouge production. Another persistent topic throughout the film is the tension and conflict between the different ways of life in the city and the country; anyone who's ever considered giving up their city lifestyle for a more peaceful and naturalistic existence will relate to Taeko's dilemma.
For the US release, Taeko's adult self is voiced by Daisy Ridley, now internationally famous for her role in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. But you won't hear Rey every time Taeko opens her mouth — Ridley adopts an American accent here, turning in a multilayered performance of wistfulness and warmth. The leading male role of Toshio, a family friend in the country, is handled by Dev Patel (The Newsroom, Slumdog Millionaire) with an air of laid-back eccentricism. Even the best dubbed versions of Ghibli movies can be jarring at times, and Toshio inexplicably being the only character with a British accent doesn't help. But despite an occasionally awkward translation, the performances in Only Yesterday are excellent overall, and the beautifully produced release is nothing less than the movie deserves after so long in the wilderness.
It looks like there might not be any new Studio Ghibli movies for the foreseeable future; the company has nothing on its plate for now, and there have been rumors for years about its feature animation division closing down, particularly since Hayao Miyazaki retired. For the US audience, then, the resurrection of a long-lost classic from the Ghibli vaults is more than welcome. It might have come out in Japan in 1991, but you could think of it as a new film — Only Yesterday is truly timeless.
By Sherilyn Connelly
29 December 2015
Since 2015's When Marnie Was There looks to be its final new film for the foreseeable future, it makes sense that Studio Ghibli would circle back around to its beginnings. Isao Takahata's 1991 Only Yesterday was not Ghibli's first feature, however; it was preceded by Hayao Miyazaki's 1986 Castle in the Sky, Takahata's brutal war drama Grave of the Fireflies and Miyazaki's fluffy merchandising bonanza My Neighbor Totoro (a pairing that Ghibli had the perverse backbone to originally release as a double feature in 1988), and Miyazaki's 1989 Kiki's Delivery Service.
These and many other Ghibli works found domestic distribution in America, usually through Disney. But in spite of being Japan's highest-grossing film in 1991, Only Yesterday remained stubbornly unreleased in the U.S. It's not hard to see why. Though not the first adult-oriented, non-make-believe Ghibli film, it lacks the war-movie prestige of Takahata's own Fireflies. More pressingly, it's about a woman taking stock of her life, and as any American studio executive will tell you, that sort of girly froufrou nonsense doesn't sell tickets or win awards. Even if there weren't all that menstruation talk (and there's a lot of discussion in the picture among schoolchildren about who's getting their period when), it has the same name as a Carpenters song, for Pete's sake.
So bless GKIDS for giving Only Yesterday its first domestic release, because it's both an important part of Ghibli's history and a gem in its own right.
Taeko (Miki Imai) is an unmarried 27-year-old Tokyo native in 1982 who travels to the country to work for a spell on a safflower farm. Along the way, she begins to reminisce about being ten, living with her parents and two sisters while dealing with the indignities and pleasures (usually in that order of frequency) of school and life. Only Yesterday alternates between the two timelines, sometimes in the middle of dialogue, with 1966 Taeko (Youko Honna) getting as much if not more screen time as 1982 Taeko — who, though not necessarily unhappy with her life, still wonders if she's grown into the kind of person she wanted to be.
Nineteen eighty-two Taeko is aware of her ten-year-old self as an active presence in her life; as she ruminates on the train, "I didn't intend the ten-year-old me to come on this trip. But somehow, once she showed up...she wouldn't leave me alone." We then see young Taeko emerge from a curtain behind her older self's back; she's not a ghost or a figment of older Taeko's imagination, as the grown-up her doesn't actually see her earlier incarnation. Taeko the child is the past, always lurking, but sometimes far closer than usual.
That is preceded by one of the most crucial and lovely moments of the film, as 1966 Taeko leaves an after-school baseball game in a hurry to avoid the cute star pitcher Hirota (Yuuki Masuda) who's crushed out on her, a situation made worse by the local gossip girls writing Taeko and Hirota's names together on a wall. Hirota emerges from an intersection a few hundred feet in front of Taeko, and both freeze solid for fifteen seconds, framed like gunslingers in a western, the film's soundtrack dropping out: no music, no ambient noise, no sound at all until we hear Taeko's footsteps as she reluctantly starts walking toward Hirota, taking another twenty seconds of emotionally fraught screen time.
Both Taeko and Hirota are nervous beyond measure, and after he can't work up a coherent sentence about the words on the wall, Hirota asks if she prefers rainy, cloudy, or sunny days. When she eventually stammers, "Cloudy" — her answer is followed by a quick cut of a ball slamming into a catcher's mitt — Hirota exclaims, "Me too!" A bird starts chittering, and the score comes to life as they both go on their way, Taeko first running and then flying home through vanilla skies, aloft on the power of the first stirrings of love, creating a memory that will bring her joy time and again.
It's in those slices of life, most of them more mundane or painful, where Only Yesterday truly shines. The present-day scenes often have the pastoral reveries common in anime; the socioeconomics of safflower rouge production is explained in some detail, as are the benefits of organic farming (this by 1982 Taeko's potential love interest, Toshio, voiced by Toshiro Yanagiba).
It's significant that there's no artificial jeopardy or genuine crisis for the often smiling 1982 Taeko; indeed, the official poster is of her grinning broadly while her younger self looks perplexed. It's the adult who's learned what to take from the past, what to laugh off, and how something as frivolous as a children's television show theme can be a source of strength and inspiration. Nineteen sixty-six Taeko's beloved show Hyokkori Pumpkin Island got it right after all: There'll be hard times, there'll be sad times, but we'll never lose heart.
27 February 2016
This anime classic has taken 25 years to make it to our shores
By Todd VanDerWerff
The Japanese film Only Yesterday, released in 1991, has been called a masterpiece. It's made lists of the greatest animated films — or just the greatest films — ever made. It's largely hailed as a landmark in the development of anime.
And until now, you couldn't see in the United States (not legally, anyway).
The film aired once, in 2006, on Turner Classic Movies, and has been screened a couple of times elsewhere since then. But by and large, it has been unavailable to Americans. However, it's in theaters now, thanks to animation distributor GKIDS, and you should see it.
Only Yesterday centers on the life of a young woman named Taeko, across two very different time periods. When the film begins, Taeko is 27 years old and living in 1980s Tokyo. But an upcoming trip to the countryside leaves her thinking back to her childhood, reminiscing on her experience as a fifth grader in the 1960s and thinking about all the ways that version of herself is the same as and different from her adult self.
That's it. Taeko travels to the country and gets a taste of the farming life, while her younger self has the usual sort of coming-of-age adventures we might expect, from sex-ed classes to a first crush to frustrations with schoolwork. But Only Yesterday is not a story high on incident. It's about a young girl growing up, and a young woman wondering if she's lost track of her most essential self.
The film is reminiscent of the work of American director Richard Linklater, who's most famous for movies like Dazed and Confused, the Before Sunrise trilogy, and Boyhood. Like much of Linklater's work, Only Yesterday meanders and takes its time with its storytelling. At times, you'll wonder if it has anything more to offer than pleasant incidents. And when you reach the end, you'll feel emotionally overwhelmed by how it knits together all of these incidents into a larger story about what it means to be a human being.
Only Yesterday was directed by Isao Takahata, who is occasionally (and unfairly) labeled as the "other" great director who worked at Japan's Stubio Ghibli, one of the most important animation houses in the world.
Takahata's co-worker Hayao Miyazaki (he of My Neighbor Totoro and Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away) has rightly been acclaimed as a masterful director the world over. But Takahata is too often discussed in Miyazaki's shadow (at least in the West), when he should be standing proudly on his own.
Only Yesterday, his follow-up to the devastating World War II film Grave of the Fireflies (1988), encapsulates what Takahata does so very well. If Miyazaki imbues dreams with some of the emotional reality of real life, then Takahata imbues some of the most mundane events of real life — characters sampling a pineapple, say — with the feeling of a dream.
Yes, Only Yesterday is a simple coming-of-age tale, but it's also very smart about the way our younger selves haunt us well into adulthood, always asking why we're not the people we thought we would be. The film's animation is spare but lyrical; it feels as if past might blend into present, or the reverse.
The childhood portions of Only Yesterday are based on a popular Japanese manga, but the sections following Taeko to the farm are Takahata's invention. And they sometimes feel a bit cloying, honestly, because they employ such shopworn clichés as the city girl who learns more about life from visiting the country (and from the young man she meets there).
But every time Only Yesterday begins to drift off-course, Takahata shifts back toward his central notion of a woman reflecting on her life with some melancholy, but also some joy. Taeko isn't just bittersweet about the differences between her fifth-grade self and her 27-year-old self. She also finds some joy in getting reacquainted with the person she was, who's been living alongside her all along.
In particular, Takahata's approach crystallizes during a moment late in the film, when Taeko tells Toshio (the young man from the country who is also her love interest) a story from her childhood that particularly haunts her. In this scene, the director captures the way our memories catch on certain, specific details, or how they might spin out into entire remembrances rooted in a simple look back at a misspoken word or a particularly vivid color. But he also captures the way our memories can make us realize how little we've changed, if we know where to look.
Animation fans have been whispering about Only Yesterday for years, passing around bootlegs, but they're only just now enjoying easy access to it. Disney, which bought international rights to many Ghibli films in the 1990s (though GKIDS holds those rights now), didn't seem to know what to do with this one, perhaps because its plot resists easy description even more than most of the studio's catalog (and also, perhaps, because a significant portion of the film deals with young girls learning about their menstrual cycles).
At its core, Only Yesterday is about the inner emotional journey of a young woman, a subject Hollywood film has too often struggled to depict (though one that Ghibli has always been uniquely good at). There's no obvious marketing hook, no scene to stick in the trailer to intrigue people. Just a woman thinking about her past and trying to understand her future.
Even now, it's only arriving in theaters with the all-star voices of freshly minted Star Wars star Daisy Ridley, Slumdog Millionaire star Dev Patel, and all-around solid character actor John C. Reilly in the cast of its English dub. It's not hard to see why audiences might reject the film, or why GKIDS would want to stack the deck in its favor.
But here's hoping viewers will find this lovely little tale. Only Yesterday can test your patience, especially in the early going, but I wouldn't change a second of the way it unfolds. It's like taking a journey to some remote corner of the globe, the better to get away from yourself, only to realize you're both the best and most constant traveling companion you could have.
Animage / The Rose
From Animage, January 1991
Translated by Kevin Leahy
Presenting in the summer of 1991 Studio Jiburi's newest production!
Hayao Miyazaki - producer, Isao Takahata - director. *Omoide Poroporo* (literally, "Remembering in Drops", unofficially titled in English "Only Yesterday").
A 27-year-old office lady sets out on a journey, and her companion is a remembrance of when she was 10 years old.
Roughly two years after the release of *Majo no Takyubin* (*Witch's Delivery Service*), Studio Jiburi's newest production - Omoide Poroporo - is set to be released to the public. In 1987 this production was published serially in "Shukan Myojo" (Monthly Morning Star) as a manga of the same name. The original creator, Hotaru Okamoto, wrote of her experiences as a young lady, and Yuko Tone drew the manga.
The stage was Showa 41 (1966), the year the Beatles came to Japan, and when weaved [sic] with the home and school experiences of the heroine - elementary school 5th grader Taeko Okajima - and described from the view-point of a 10-year old girl, the sympathy of a lot of readers is gained.
Isao Takahata is supervisor for the script writing. Since Hotaru no Haka (Grave of the Firefly), three years have been spent supervising production. In the anime, unlike the original work, Taeko appears grown to the age of 27 years and the reminiscences that form the original work are told paralleling Taeko's trip of self-discovery in modern times.
Showa 41 (1966) - Taeko Okajima, 10 years old, elementary school 5th grader.
The things I like: hamburgers, bananas, loose sushi, and the dandy from *Hyokkori Hyotan Island*.
The things I hate: horse radish, onions, fish salad, and math.
I recall... left-over school lunches, couldn't compute fractions, sour pineapple, scolded by Dad...
I recall... triumphant composition, the age of enlightenment, the school literary club, the first time I was depressed about boys...
The youngest of the three sisters, Taeko badly takes advantage of her situation and soon she is always being silenced by her older sisters. Her strong suit is Japanese, and her weak point is math. In class, it can't be said that she's overly conspicuous. Already the idols they like fill the conversations of the girls of the present class, and their favorite star is *Hyokkori Hyotan Island*'s dandy, they say, but it might be a little bit of a secret...
In short, this story's heroine, Taeko Okajima, is an ordinary girl like those anywhere else. The background era of Showa 41 (1966) and other things aside, the episodes of this production are the general experiences of childhood, crossing generations and the world, and something with which everyone can sympathize. If we can set our adult eyes back on them just a little, when we were children these were urgent matters. These events, for anyone who may not recall their time, are their own memories, too.