Only Yesterday (1991)

When most people think of Studio Ghibli, they think either magical fantasy, high flying machines, or both. Almost all of the studio’s work (excluding one or two films) has some sort of larger-than-life element to it, be it flying witches or the newest airplane signalling the beginning of the Great War. Only Yesterday, Ghibli’s 1991 release, steers clear of the easily recognized tropes and instead forces the viewer down to earth with a slice-of-life tale about a woman searching for the meaning of her life. Mixed with flashbacks of the woman’s youth, the story moves between her reminiscences about her younger days, and the stormy road ahead. While the movie may step back from the tried-and-true Ghibli fare, it more than makes up for it with breathtaking visuals and a story that we can all relate to.

Unlike most Ghibli films, this movie is not set in an alternative timeline between the 1890s and 1950s, but instead in 1980’s Japan. Taeko, an unmarried career woman, takes a ten day vacation off her big city job to go join her sister’s family in picking safflowers in the country. While her co-workers and even her sister mock her for going to a farm on a vacation, Taeko can’t help feeling excited at the expanse of wild land and hard work; so much so, that she starts to remember her younger days as a fourth grader. Soon, memories begin flooding back, from her first crush to her tasting a fresh, albeit unripe, pineapple for the first time. As she works through her vacation, she begins to doubt her own happiness with life in the big city, and asks if perhaps she’s doing a young Taeko wrong in her life choices.

As stated, Only Yesterday is a movie that falls in line with the more slower-paced Ghibli works such as My Neighbors the Yamadas and Whisper of the Heart. It forgoes using outside elements such as war or illness as a driving force, and instead focuses inward in an attempt to make a movie that is very relatable to the viewer. It’s a simple story about a woman who has reached a turning point in her life. She is attempting to align what she had hoped for as a young girl with what she now has the opportunity to do, while trying to figure out where her true obligations lie. She tells stories of her younger self when the proper opportunity arises, each one ranging from cute and funny to kind of sad, and manages to bring it back to where she is now. It’s an interesting, multi-layered work, like Eat Pray Love but as an anime. Much like Eat Pray Love, there is a ton of dialogue which, at times, seems to go nowhere. There’ll be five to ten minute intervals of just conversation between Taeko and whoever is around, so do make sure to have some patience.

The animation is also markedly different from previous Ghibli works as well. While the basic style is still the same (round faces with doll like eyes), there is a lot more detail put into the facial expressions than earlier films, which will change as Taeko’s emotions flutter to the service. The characters also move more consistently as they speak so as to keep the watcher engaged through reams of dialogue. An interesting note is the difference in background detail as the movie cuts between Taeko’s memories and her current experiences. Younger Taeko focuses much more on her immediate surroundings and the people around her rather than smaller details, so objects such as buildings and doorways ended up getting painted with a softer touch, much like a child’s memory. When we rejoin Taeko in the present, her world is much more detailed and that sweeping landscape that so often marks a Ghibli work is front and centre. It’s a wonderful way to break apart the two time-lines and help the viewer understand Taeko’s world.

If Only Yesterday sounds up your alley, it is currently on DVD and most likely streaming somewhere. While it was initially released in 1991 in Japan, it just hit the English speaking shores last year and is voiced by Daisy Ridley and Dev Patel, who do a brilliant job. The Blu-ray version comes with several goodies including the full storyboard, a making of section, and interview with the English dub team.

Even if you’re not into slice-of-life anime, I recommend Only Yesterday simply for the wonderful animation and voice acting. Also, it’ll make you feel things and sometimes, you just gotta feel things. Grab your copy today!