Director Isao Takahata
Starring Daisy Ridley, Dev Patel (voices)
Released on 15th August 2016
As Japan’s Studio Ghibli takes a break from making films, and its many fans suffer withdrawl symptoms, they can indulge in an unexpected treat in the form of the re-release of a film from 1991. Only Yesterday had a 25th anniversary outing in cinemas a couple of months ago, complete with a new, English voice over, and now its arrived on DVD.
It’s graced by the vocal talents of Dev Patel and Daisy Ridley, in her first project since Star Wars:The Force Awakens. Light years away, you might say. And in the director’s chair is Isao Takahata, who was behind the exquisite The Tale Of The Princess Kaguya, his last film to date and released in 2013 when he was 78.
We’re presented with the story of Taeko (voiced by Ridley), in her mid-20s, unmarried and working for a reputable company in Tokyo. She’s lived her whole life in the city, always yearning to visit the countryside, and takes off to visit some relatives for a holiday. To use her own words, her fifth grade self comes with her: childhood memories come flooding back, both good and painful. During her stay, she continues to think about her earlier years and discovers she may, at last, have found the place where she really belongs.
While this film came more than 20 years before Princess Kaguya, the animation gives us more than a few indications of what was to come. Kaguya’s exceptional beauty was down to the subtlety of an animation that evoked impressionist, watercolour paintings. Here, it’s mixed with the bolder, more familiar style of Japanese animation, with its stronger colours and black outlines. That style is saved for the people and the locations away from the countryside, while the rural scenes have that delicate wash of colour, gentle rain drops and beautifully detailed flowers and insects, emphasizing Taeko’s two different lives and the powerful pull of rural life.
The film is essentially a meditation on memory, how it never leaves even if it’s buried in the deepest recesses of the mind, how it comes back when you least expect it and how it continues to affect your life right to the very end. The multi-layered story shows the younger Taeko’s frustrations with the world around her – she finds essays easy but does badly at maths, is a constant disappointment to her mother and goes through all the usual feelings of disappointment. Watch her excitement at the prospect of eating fresh pineapple for the first time and the crushing let-down when she tastes it and finds it’s too hard and tasteless. There’s the crippling shyness that goes with a first crush, the embarrassment of all the boys in the school knowing when she and her friends have started having periods and the devastation when her beloved father smacks her.
All of which and more has helped made Taeko the person she is – independent, solitary, complicated and still trying to figure out who she is. She even manages to find love in the countryside, young organic farmer Toshio (voice of Dev Patel), who teaches her humans and the land are connected to each other and also helps her understand herself. The relationship between ourselves and our planet is another of the films messages and, while today’s audiences might find it simplistic, it’s heartfelt and still manages to resonate.
Animation is usually associated with films for the family, if not the children themselves, but this is a rare example of one that’s aimed at adults deals with adult issues. Its insights into character and memory and its portrait of rural life – at times a touch too chocolate box, but mostly luscious to watch – are a simply wonderful watch.
Only Yesterday is another reminder, as if we need one, that Studio Ghibli’s animation was, and still is, in a class of its own. While it takes a break, it’s missed. Hopefully this will help fill that gap.
Only Yesterday is out on DVD now and is reviewed on Talking Pictures on Thursday, 25 August.