Only Yesterday - A Forrest Review
Only Yesterday is an animated drama produced by Studio Ghibli, written and directed by Isao Takahata, with Hayao Miyazaki as the general producer. It is based off of the 1982 manga of the same name, by Hotaru Okamoto and Yuko Tone. Only Yesterday was released on July 20th, 1991, and today it still has a 100% Rotten Tomatoes score, with an audience score of 84%.
The film opens up in a busy office building in Tokyo, Japan where Taeko, the main character, is speaking with her boss. He’s approving some time off, as Taeko will be going out to the country. Surprised by this, he implies that she’s getting away to recover from a painful breakup. Taeko laughs: she just loves the countryside. While this is true, her main plan in going to the country is to work on a safflower farm. Not for the money, clearly, but for the experience.
She goes on to reminisce about her childhood, how everyone was going away to the country during summer break and she is left behind. No plans, no excitement, and the reality of just not being able to afford a vacation. Throughout the film, Taeko is taken away by these memories of her past-self, both the good memories and the bad.
For Taeko, “remembering the good ol’ days” wasn’t remembering the trends or fashion like her elder sisters, but about her struggles in grade school, and little things like how much she used to hate onions and pickles.
Only Yesterday is not like the more popular Ghibli films, most notably Miyazaki’s fantasy films. Taeko’s reminiscent journey through her childhood is soft, ordinary, melancholy even, and maybe not exciting to the average viewer...but it is this thoughtful existence as Taeko makes her way out to the country that just grips me anyway. Our experiences, no matter how ordinary, or painful, sad, or exciting, they shape our beliefs. Our lives are built on memories. Maybe we don’t remember things the way they really were, but they form us anyway. We can choose to hold on to these memories, or we can choose to learn from them and let them go, so we can grow and change.
Takahata’s style of animation is simply gorgeous. Like some of his other films, specifically My Neighbors the Yamadas and Princess Kaguya, the animation is done in watercolor. There is a beautiful scene from Taeko’s memories where Taeko and a boy who likes her meet up on the way home. The sun is setting, and the whites are so stark against the orange and red hues. In this moment, whether the memory is exaggerated or not, Taeko experiences her first crush, and as she comes back to herself in the present, at 27-years-old, she still finds herself bursting into giggles at the memory.
After Taeko gets off the train in the countryside and is collected by Toshio, a local farmer, the amount of detail in the vehicles parked on the rainy asphalt is captivating. Such a simple scene, something we see every day, but done so beautifully. Only Yesterday has many scenes like this, where the scenery is gorgeous and finely detailed. For the art alone, I think any Ghibli enthusiast would be satisfied.
Further along in the film, there’s a memory Taeko recalls about how bad she was at math growing up. I really related to this, and it’s so harsh how her family treats her because of it. Taeko is very smart, but she learns and views math differently than how her sister Yaeko is able to memorize and solve math problems. It’s an unfortunate time Taeko was living in that made her childhood more stressful than it needed to be. Even after all this time, she still finds herself so frustrated with something like division and fractions. It brings her back to the present, where her tangent about her past to Toshio brings him to mind of how passionate he is about farming. It reminds Taeko of how she doesn’t feel passionate about her own job, and then further memories of her childhood self.
Taeko is absolutely caught up in the romanticism of farming and rural living. Toshio seems to be too, in his venture to start a prosperous organic farm with his friend. However, having grown up on a farm, Toshio does understand how difficult it is, and is determined to do the hard work to create the dream he strives for.
“If today is bad, there’s always tomorrow. If tomorrow’s bad, there’s the day after that.”
I love to see how Taeko’s dream of farming comes crashing down. That sounds harsher than I mean it to, haha, but I only mean that it’s so realistic and really pulls the story back to the ground. I won’t spoil the details, but she comes to realize she is romanticizing this life, and the guilt comes to meet her, bringing Taeko to another memory of her 5th grade self, also full of shame.
On the way back to the farm in the present, the rain has cleared, and the headlights of the car reflect the dew off all the foliage of the forest. The moon is full, and Taeko reflects on her present, instead of her past. I love Taeko’s inquisitive, self-reflective nature. I love how she takes every moment within herself, from something as far back as a 5th grade childhood memory, to the process of creating rouge out of safflowers.
The ending is so beautiful, as a Japanese rendition of “The Rose” by Bette Midler plays and the credits roll. The summer was spent reliving her 5th grade self, but now she is able to leave her past behind, and Taeko is finally able to move forward.
Maybe Only Yesterday is too slow for the casual viewer, but still this film leaves me feeling just as self-reflective and hopeful as Taeko leaves it. I definitely recommend this film, even if only to admire the scenery.
Have you seen Only Yesterday? What were your thoughts? Feel free to leave a comment, and please like and follow my blog! If you like these posts and want to give other kinds of support, you can also Buy Me a Coffee!