If you’re ever dealing with somebody who pretends misogyny doesn’t exist in the film industry and somehow reminding them that Blue Valentine got an NC-17 rating over the fact that women can get orally pleasured doesn’t convince them, consider using this example: Takahata Isao’s second directorial film for the now-in-full-force Studio Ghibli (and 7th film overall, roughly if you consider the Panda Go Panda shorts one whole feature), Only Yesterday, took almost 15 fucking years to get a U.S. theatrical release despite being among the many films purchased by Disney in their landmark 1996 deal with the animation studio. It received only one quick television broadcast in 2006.
The reason being that apparently Disney was unwilling to release a film that featured scenes where girls learn about and deal with menstruation, while they were legally contracted not to edit any of the Ghibli films they purchase*. Meanwhile, Takahata’s next film Pom Poko got released in the US with scenes revolving around big-balled raccoons.
Oh well. Their loss because Only Yesterday stands tall as a masterpiece in Studio Ghibli’s history. Although without the benefit of hindsight, it might have looked as though Takahata Isao was not taking as many risks as one would associate him with.
For like Grave of the Fireflies, Only Yesterday is based on autobiographical material on the part of Okamoto Hotaru, who co-wrote with Tone Yuko the manga source おもひでぽろぽろ (Memories Come Tumbling Down, the title which this film released under in Japan). And again like Grave of the Fireflies, the main focus of the story happens to be the childhood memories of human characters. Not entirely however, as Okamoto and Tone’s series was strictly focused on a year in the life of ten-year-old Taeko (Honna Youko) while Takahata’s screenplay takes the liberty of framing it from the perspective of a now-27-year-old Taeko (Imai Miki) as she takes a break from her office job in Tokyo to head down to the countryside of Yamagata to help her sisters’ in-laws harvest safflower. And it feels like the flashbacks embedded in the adult storyline take Taeko aback just as much as they had to have taken the authors of this film aback, but there’s a connective tapestry between the two stories that re-frames everything as looking on how our younger origins and yearnings inform the personality and decisions we might make in our later lives even if by surprise.
We learn almost immediately that Taeko’s desire to visit and be part of the country life came from an early life where her family was unable to acquiesce to her desire to take a school vacation out of the city, ostensibly because they had nobody they knew in the area. And I would say “that’s it” as far as how those memories tumbling down end up connecting to WHY Taeko is going to Yamagata and yet they do so much more to shape her personality in a manner that never fails to progress the story in some way: it’s almost Tarantino-esque how a scenario or tale adult Taeko is going through or talking about during her stay opens up to an episode of kid Taeko’s time, except it calls the least amount of attention to itself that a movie can while including the line “I didn’t intend for the ten-year-old me to come along on this trip”. It’s essentially the brain’s free association as a narrative structure. It’s smooth and organic and the lack of escalating incident for the movie beyond a late romantic development doesn’t make Only Yesterday feel strained in the slightest.
There’s also how exciting the film is visually, like all of Takahata’s other films, without flaunting it the same way that his later films would. In fact, the development of Takahata’s style between Grave of the Fireflies and Only Yesterday is incredibly subtle, but I’d argue nested in the lines and colors of Only Yesterday is the genesis of all the stylistic habits that Takahata would spend the rest of his life exploring. And those habits are embedded in the distinct designs of each timeline.
The one that would probably catch a viewer’s eye at first glance is the faces: the faces of adult Taeko’s storyline have more defined cheeks while childhood Taeko’s storyline has a flatter cartoon shape. Not too flat, mind you, just enough to really call attention to the dimension in the adult storyline (established to be the present as far narrative perspective is concerned). And Only Yesterday is very proud of those muscles: the first shot that introduces us to Taeko is her smiling loud enough for dimples and the film is more than happy to give her or one of her farming guides Toshio (Yanagiba Toshiro) scenarios where they flex those faces with smiles and such.
Not that young Taeko doesn’t also have scenes to show off character designs, namely in moments of bliss where her eyes expand into starry happiness like talking to a crush or entertaining a future as an actress. And her reactions to her situations are more cartoon exaggerations, including a moment of her face constantly morphing to appalled looks when teased during the infamous period storyline. In general, the whole aesthetic of the younger storyline allows for more fantastical freedom – both of those blissful moments are given big rainbows and literal flights of fancy – and while I’m not sure how close that is to the aesthetic of the manga itself, I’m glad Takahata and his crew found a space to use as a playground. It’s interesting to see how these fantasies play in the mind of adult Taeko, as we witness her quote her meeting with childhood crush Hirota (Masuda Yuki) and roll around in bed in happiness.
The other big trademark of Takahata is his exploration of using the blank white empty areas of the canvas to translate a narrative mood. Out of the three movies where he exercises this, he never uses them for the same purpose. In Only Yesterday‘s case, it’s solely applied to the 5th grade timeline where the backdrops are constantly fading at the edges, as though the memory is only barely grasped to and the locations (constantly in the most transparent watercolors) aren’t really being regarded by Taeko, only the event in question. It’s a distant look into the past that the film constantly calls attention to, including a shot where the image pulls away from us to fill the frame with more and more white until I leave the shot altogether and return the present, like an awakening. And yet that distance doesn’t prevent the flashbacks from having a pleasant nostalgia to them in the way of their soft colors and designs, much more pleasant and relaxed to look at than the full information of the adult timeline.
And the adult timeline nevertheless keeps itself busy with landscapes of rural life: farms and fields and rivers abound in lush, full tones. It is clear that while Miyazaki Hayao was probably the most famously environmentalist of the two within Studio Ghibli, that attitude rubbed off very much on his friend Takahata with all the bright colors of the safflowers being picked (remarked by the narration consciously) and one majestic shot where we slowly witness morning sunlight landing on the workers of the safflower field (this is a very patient film despite never feeling slow, using spans of silence for atmosphere). Toshio mentions it’s important to be ecstatic about your work as his motivation for becoming a farmer and it shows that Takahata believed in that philosophy and wanted it to be prevalent throughout Only Yesterday: the harvest and the green and the dye and the lands are wonderful to be around and we get Taeko’s ecstasy at being able to accomplish her childhood dreams and her fascination with this world.
Which is a pleasant attitude that fuels all of Only Yesterday‘s breeziness, aided wonderfully by Hoshi Katsu’s graceful musical score and adult performances that sound like they’re emerging out of smiles. Obviously, Only Yesterday isn’t all pleasantries when it’s rooted in the turbulence of growing up, but the confusion from those memories simply prove to strengthen Taeko’s feeling of agency in the present and her wisdom, feelings that Takahata translates to us efficiently. Sure, Only Yesterday is probably the least radical film in his arsenal, but it’s also his most unassuming and confident about its own perfection.
*There is a famous legend regarding this clause where Suzuki Toshio or Miyazaki Hayao – depending on who’s telling the story – mailed Harvey Weinstein a katana with a note reading “no cuts” in response to Weinstein’s desire to re-edit Princess Mononoke for U.S. release.