Everyone has experienced flashbacks. They could be lying in bed, trying to fall asleep when their brain randomly decides to remind them of the time they accidentally called their teacher “Mom,” or when they forgot their line in the school play. It happens everywhere, at the grocery store, on a date. The brain does not discriminate. These flashbacks usually last seconds. Time stops to look back and then continues to march on.
But what if, instead of brief moment, an entire year of one’s life comes rushing back in startling clarity?
Welcome to Only Yesterday.
Originally released in 1991 to Japanese audiences, Only Yesterday takes place in 1982 and is the story of 27-year-old Taeko, a single woman living in Tokyo. During a trip to the countryside, Taeko suddenly finds herself reminiscing of her time as a 5th grader in 1966, a year when The Beatles came to Japan and young women started using skirts. Through her memories, Taeko tries to reconnect with her past self and comes to terms with her wants and future.
In celebration of its 25th anniversary, Isao Takahata’s highly successful film has finally been release in North America. Well, in one theater in New York City.
The film is what one would expect from both Studio Ghibli and Isao Takahata. It is breathtakingly gorgeous and keenly realistic. Unlike other animated films that take advantage of the audiences’ willingness to suspend their own disbelief, Only Yesterday reminds filmgoers that animation can be just as subtle and profound as many indie films try to be. In true Ghibli fashion, the film is rich with scenes that cause audiences to feel, react. The theater laughs at younger Taeko’s antics and struggles along with older Taeko as she tries to understand what her memories tell her.
By differentiating the tone and style of each time period, the film confidently jumps between the past and the present, not once losing its audience. For some, the film may seem too slow or subtle. Such critiques are valid. But they would also be asking the film to be something it is not. The conflict is very much internal and characters’ actions show restraint, less heightened than what one would find in other dramas. Takahata’s true stamp is his unwillingness to forsake reality for exaggerated storytelling.
Only Yesterday stays on a person’s mind long after the end credits roll. I had walked out of the film slightly underwhelmed, expecting something more along the lines of Takahata’s masterpiece, The Tale of Princess Kaguya, my favorite animated film. But as hours went by, I still couldn’t form an opinion of the film. It was only when I took away my preconceived notions and studied the film more, like Taeko did of her own memories, that it all clicked. The critiques I had, of Taeko being so disjointed from her younger self, were a result of me misunderstanding the core conflict of the film. Some, like me, may think and reflect for a while after the film to form an opinion. Others may “get” the film right away. Nonetheless, the film worth seeing.
The English cast succeeds in delivering memorable performances despite some awkwardness due to the translation. Daisy Ridley, the lead in the record breaking Star Wars: The Force Awakens, shows off her American accent as the voice of the older Taeko. But the performance that truly shines is of Alison Fernandez, who plays Ridley’s younger counterpart. Granted, younger Taeko is given more to do.
This may well be the last time a Studio Ghibli film will be released in North American theaters. Fans of Ghibli, of animation, or of cinema should go to watch this film as it was meant to: in a theater filled with people open to letting a young girl show them and the protagonist that sometimes the only way to move forward is by looking back.
Only Yesterday will be released nationwide on February 26, 2016.