Only Yesterday review - usenet rec.movies - 18 August 1992

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Omoide Poro Poro - Remembering the Sounds of Falling Teardrops

Written by Bryan C. Wilkinson

30 May 1992

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.