Out of all the films on Ghibli’s roster, Only Yesterday is the film I was looking forward to watching the most and is the one I’ve heard the least about. After finishing the ninety-some minute drama, I think I have a better understanding as to why I haven’t heard much.
The film focuses on Taeko, a Tokyo business woman and all-around city girl in her late twenties, who decides to take a ten day trip to the countryside where her brother-in-law lives. Taeko feels no ill for city life, nor does she hold any attachment to it: at her office job she feels as though she’s just floating by. She adores the country, but she doesn’t know why.
On her journey to Takase—a small farming town in the Yamagata Prefecture—she is slowly overcome with memories of her younger self, specifically her fifth grade self. She mentions that that moment in time was a defining moment in her life, a moment where she changed from one form of herself to another. In that same vein, she feels like this trip may be another one of those points in her life.
Upon arriving, she’s met by her brother-in-law’s second cousin, Toshio, and he takes her back to the farm house. As she works the fields picking safflower, she struggles with her own selfishness in the past and how it has formed her into the person she is today. She questions whether or not she has grown at all and relies on Toshio more than she knows to help her answer these questions. There’s a point where she even questions her love for the country and runs away from the home she’s staying at because she can’t fathom the idea put forth by one of the aunties of the farm of marrying Toshio, especially when she’s not even sure of herself and her place in the world.
In the end however, thanks to her introspection and the people willing to listen to her problems, Taeko decides to remain in the countryside. She’s finally certain not only of her love of the people who live there and the peace she gets from being there, but also of the drive within herself.
As you can probably tell, Only Yesterday is drastically different than any other Ghibli movie that had been released at that time. Indeed, it was a risk for Takahata to consider putting an adult drama within an animated medium—stereotypically a children’s medium—and fortunately it worked. Reception in Japan was largely positive and I think it was a combination of the fact that it was A) different and B) Ghibli. Dramas about business women that are trying to find their way through life are no less prevalent than romantic comedies starting Colin Firth (that is to say, there are a lot of them), but there’s something about the animated quality of the topic that makes it more relatable and less harsh.
By this point (1991), Ghibli had set a precedent of being respectful with the very real emotions they try to portray through their characters; if anyone could have pulled off this movie, it would have been Studio Ghibli. Even the animation style shows this consideration. Though the backbone of the animation is still largely the same with its beautiful backgrounds and such, the people look much more realistic, more mature. It can be off-putting to some, but it really gives this movie its own charm.
In terms of theme, it’s largely agreed that Takahata tends to deal with the more realistic and more Japanese-y of the Ghibli titles and I believe that’s largely true. Yet, while the locales in this film all hold more of an importance to those that have experienced them, the message is not singularly Japanese in nature. Stuck in between two films, Grave of the Fireflies and Pom Poko, that have a distinct cultural implication behind them, Only Yesterday is a more accessible message about growing up, and I think it’s a message that’s still very important to this day—perhaps especially so in this era where children are cajoled into growing up faster than ever. This message is that one should live life on their own terms. Though constantly harassed by her family, Taeko does what she feels she needs to. Perhaps she’s impulsive like her sister calls her, but it’s an important part of her being. In her office job, she was trying so hard to be something that would make her parents proud—a constant issue shown in her childhood flashbacks—but it’s clear that it would never make her happy. It’s not until she learns to embrace not only what makes herself ‘Taeko’, but also what has influenced her, that she can finally take a large step into adulthood.
Personal acceptance isn’t the only issue here, though. Many people seem to be of the mind that getting that first big job is when you can be considered “grown up”. That simply isn’t true and it’s part of that pressure of the societal hive-mind that lead people into taking jobs they simply don’t want and being miserable, but being too nervous to look for something that might make them happier because of how it may reflect on them poorly. Taeko doesn’t consider herself ‘grown-up’ until at the very end of the film for this reason.
In Tokyo, she is playing at being an office woman rather than being one and is teased a little bit about her desire to visit the country. Yet when she discovers that she wants to remain in the country and do something she truly enjoys, that’s when she can finally let go of the past and become an adult. The age on this is important too. After a certain age, probably around twenty-four or so, it becomes expected that you know what you want to do for the rest of your life. I’m sure we all know that this is only true a small percentage of the time. However, what Takahata is saying through Taeko here is that it’s okay to play the field, you don’t have to grow up until you feel you’re ready to. That’s a very empowering message no matter which corner of the globe you’re from, especially coming from a female character.
The best thing Takahata did for the character of Taeko was make her imperfectly believable. With this kind of story, I think it would have been really easy to fall into a sort of “manic pixie girl” trope where the city girl enchanted with country life is perfect and more than ready to cast away skyscrapers for rice paddies because she loves everything about nature, et cetera. But she’s not. There are certain points where it’s clear that Taeko was romanticizing country life and she’s reprimanded for it, by herself most harshly. Not only this, but from her flashbacks she’s shown as a somewhat selfish, stubborn, brat of a kid with academic imperfections that are never solved. She’s an actual well-rounded character and someone that many people could see themselves in.
Takahata also did his main character a justice when he made her love interest, Toshio, not an explicit love interest. What I mean by this is he’s not in every scene and it’s clear that she can live her life without him, but the scenes in which they are in together show that they have such a respect for each other that romance plays a second fiddle to their friendship.
It’s nice to see another take on a coming of age story, especially after Miyazaki’s previous younger take on it. Personally, I adored this movie, but I can completely understand why many are not as enamored with it as I am. The more realistic human animation can be a bit off-putting and I would be lying if I said there weren’t moments where the scenes really dragged on for too long—the first third of the movie is slow enough that I started wondering how long it was going to take, but the other two thirds fix this and proceed much more smoothly. All in all, I think it’s an important movie to see at least once, especially if you’re a Ghibli fan, as Only Yesterday not only has a good story with strong characters, but also sets Takahata apart from Miyazaki in a directorial sense and shows him at one of his best.