Only Yesterday was originally released in 1991 in Japan but did not receive an American theatrical release until earlier this year (2016). I suspect its release coincided with the announcement that Studio Ghibli, the animation studio behind the film, and its main animator, Hayao Miyazaki, who served as producer (not director) on were closing up shop and going home. Of course now, at the time of writing this post, I find myself in a world where Hayao Miyazaki has announced he is leaving retirement (again) to make another film, so who knows. The world of Ghibli is a fascinating thing which is difficult to understand. Studio Ghibli began as a collaboration between Hayao Miyazaki, Toshio Suzuki, Isao Takahata, and Yasuyoshi Tokuma, with Miyazaki and Takahata serving as the main creative directors of the films produced. Since the studio’s inception, Takahata has directed seven films. Only Yesterday was the second film he produced for Ghibli after his well-received film Grave of the Fireflies (1988) — which, as a side note, is the most depressing film I’ve ever seen. The reason I give this brief history is because, aside from the world of anime fans, Isao Takahata seems far less known and renown than his friend and collaborator Hayao Miyazaki. Where Miyazaki’s films tend to venture more into the fantastic elements of storytelling, it seems that Takahata tends to take a more realistic approach to his stories. One might make the comparison that Takahata is to Miyazaki what Yasujiro Ozu was to Akira Kurosawa.
The narrative of Only Yesterday begins in flashback with Taeko as a little girl in 5th grade. The story then shifts forward to her as a 27-year-old, unmarried woman, ready to embark on a summer vacation from her office job. The story is progressed via a series of flashbacks as she talks to her sisters on the phone and they reminisce about their childhood in 1960s Japan. By all accounts the story feels an odd match for animation, as it seems the sort of narrative one would typically find in a live-action drama, yet Takahata tackles the subject matter as though it were perfectly suited for the animated medium and I have no complaints in this regard. Studio Ghibli, as a whole, as the ability to bring stories to life in a way that one forgets the films are animated. The characters seem real even when their situations do not. Only Yesterday plays like a normal life drama about a young woman that is given the opportunity to choose between her life as a independent single woman and a life as a wife and possibly even mother.
At the heart of the film is a contrast between the progressive Japanese culture and the traditional ways of the country. Taeko, an office worker at her regular job, spends her summers working on a traditionally operated organic farm. She helps pick the crops and keep the place running. It isn’t that she has some sentimental view of that simpler way of life, it’s just that she enjoys seeing how it works and, despite the hard work, it’s a refreshing holiday for her. As she goes throughout her summer various situations arise which remind her of her childhood growing up in the city. The art of the film mainly arises in those segments wherein the art style is just oh so different than it is in the “current” portion of the film. The narrative wherein she is an adult is draw in a fairly realistic and almost stiff style, but the narrative of her childhood is painted in a style resembling simple watercolors and the edges of the frame are washed out. The film visually clues the audience into the dreamy quality of these flashbacks by simplifying the visual style. This is something that could not be achieved in a live action film, but here seems effortless and natural.
The new English dub, which features Daisy Ridley of Star Wars The Force Awakens (2015, dir. J.J. Abrams) fame, is somewhat lackluster. The lines are delivered in an uninteresting and uneven manner that almost makes the dialogue grating to hear. This was a point of incredible frustration with me, but thankfully the narrative was compelling enough that I was able to become invested somewhat in the film. I would like to watch the movie again with the Japanese dub (all animated movies are dubbed) to see if my impression of the overall film changes, but I doubt that it will. Really, I found the child voices far superior to their adult counterparts and in animation it is often very easily for child voice acting to be very “cringey,” but here the opposite was true. Only Yesterday is a fine film, however, and is well worth seeking out and watching, but unless you just really want to hear Daisy Ridley’s voice I would recommend watching it with the Japanese dub and the English subtitles. Either way, the film is a visual treat (particularly the portions when Taeko is a child) and I give it a healthy (although not enthusiastic) recommendation if you really enjoy slow-burn anime films without any action driving the plot.