Isao Takahata was a director who knew how to make the mundane everyday world appear so riveting in animation. Throughout his long career before and during his time at Studio Ghibli, he made many films that showcase the everyday world that are so compelling and so beautiful that they stand out so vividly. "Only Yesterday" is one such example. The film was released way back in 1991 by Studio Ghibli but it took much longer to get to the United States. It wasn't until 2016 when GKIDS finally released the film and I'm so glad that it was finally able to since it showcases the continued strengths of both Ghibli and Takahata. While it certainly bears resemblance to other films they previously and would go on to make since it's one that really stands out so gorgeously as a highlight of their continued success that would stand tall throughout the 1990s. It's such a lovely film.
In 1982, a woman from Tokyo named Taeko Okajima (Miki Imai) has booked ten days off from her job at an office company to work in the fields in the Japanese countryside to get away from the hustle and bustle in Tokyo and spend time with the family her sister's in-laws. While on the train from Tokyo, she starts to reminisce about her many strange memories of her childhood from 1966 as a ten-year-old (Yōko Honna) back in fifth grade which some might consider rather unspectacular. Even when she gets to Yamagata and meets a boy named Toshio (Toshirō Yanagiba), the memories still flood her and she begins to wonder during her vacation what she could be doing as a person and what those old memories could possibly be telling her.
As I stated earlier, this film took such a long time to get to the United States and I'm really shocked that it took this long. Throughout the many years when they held the rights, Disney never released this film presumably due to some elements in the plot they thought weren't suitable for their brand which I find absurd and its only American showing was initially a broadcast on Turner Classic Movies in 2006. Nevertheless, the film has been finally available to see for a while now in the United States and I couldn't be happier because it is a terrific film from Studio Ghibli. The story of the film tackles the theme of nostalgia and it can be tricky to carry. There have been many times where the nostalgic flashbacks the protagonist has in a movie can come off too sentimental and sappy as well as not feeling as compelling as they should be. This is not one of those films. It's a terrific portrayal of nostalgia and it resulted in some of my favorite scenes in the film as we see a young Taeko growing up in Tokyo back in 1966. She mentions while her older sisters remember fashion styles of the time and the pop stars like the time The Beatles performed at the Budokan in Tokyo during their final tour, it was only fifth grade and that the little things that might not be much to her seem somewhat special. There are many moments here from the time her family tries pineapple for the first time and is mostly disappointed, the signs of puppy love where Taeko has a crush on a boy named Shuuji, her struggle with math and fractions, and even the sensitive topics of puberty and having a period. It's handled so vividly and naturally without it feeling forced or overbearing especially since all the memories aren't the happy ones too. The scenes in the present in 1982 are also done well as we see Taeko trying to figure out herself and having discussions with Toshio about life in the countryside and their overall purpose. It would be very easy for the scenes to feel uninteresting since most of the time is devoted to characters talking, but the dialogue is so interesting and unique that it feels rather compelling. As far as the animation goes, it's terrific. Takahata and Ghibli put a unique touch to the look of the film and the lens of both the present-day scenes and the flashback scenes.
While the present-day scenes are scenes fully formed and gorgeously detailed with tons of touches put to the locations and the people that live there, the flashbacks scenes are shown to be rather hazy. The backgrounds are unfinished and have many details missing from them as if we are actually going into Taeko's head and we see her vision of the past. As people, we will often forget the small minute details of certain situations and might have trouble even remembering certain moments and this film perfectly showcases it. I especially love watercolors in the background and how gorgeous the Japanese countryside looks in the film as well as the character designs by Yoshifumi Kondo are very endearing and somewhat cute. I also think the characters are very compelling as well. The whole film rests on Taeko's shoulders and she's a Ghibli protagonist that is very interesting and has great character development. Throughout the film, she starts to wonder what her memories are telling her and if she's happy where she is now and whether or not she should do something about that. It's strong growth and she's both exceptionally interesting to watch blossom both in the present and flashback sequences. I also think that Toshio is the perfect contrast character for her as he seems to be someone that has things figured out and has his own views on his life and work in the countryside that makes the discussions he has with Taeko very interesting to watch. Even in the flashback, Taeko has nice moments where she bonds with her sisters, mother, and friends at school. I will say though that some of the characters left little to be desired and could've been fleshed out more, especially Taeko's father. He seemed very one-dimensional to me as the stern father of the household and the little time he has on-screen didn't do much for me and Taeko never really talks about her relationship with him. It was rather strange especially since Takahta perfectly nailed a stern character with the aunt in his previous film "Grave of the Fireflies". It's really the only criticism I can muster though.
"Only Yesterday" is a wonderful film about reminiscing and discovering oneself. The story is very compelling and has nice moments, the animation is gorgeous and has terrific use of limitations, and the characters are mostly rather interesting and have terrific growth. It's a divine film from Studio Ghibli that I also strongly recommend watching and it's a reason why they have had such a powerful impact yesterday, today, and tomorrow and this film will fall into that mold as well.