23 May 2008 | ThreeSadTigers
Beautifully made and emotionally captivating coming-of-age story from the esteemed Studio Ghibli
The success of this film will depend largely on the extent to which you can identify with the central character, and how much you can emphasis with the central theme of growing up. Those with a pre-determined idea of what Studio Ghibli is and what their films represent may be somewhat put out by the nature of the film, which is perhaps more mature in its themes and sensitive in its characterisations than something like Panda! Go Panda! (1972) or the iconic My Neighbour Totoro (1988); creating a film that is based very much in reality, but abstracted by the more fantastical allusions to childhood and memory.
Unlike the more widely regarded Ghibli films, the fantasy elements of Only Yesterday (1991) come from within the narrative; as our central character recalls elements of her life as a child as she finds herself at something of a difficult crossroads. She's approaching thirty, but still very much a youngster at heart, and has to juggle between chasing her dreams and living up to the expectations of her family and the stereotypical idea of a woman as the domesticated wife and mother. As she leaves the city to spend the summer picking safflower on the farm of some distant relatives she is accompanied, figuratively, by her ten year old self, as the lessons and events that shaped her young life are used again to help her make that all important decision that will ultimately set the course for the rest of her life. Although the subject matter might hint at melodrama, the presentation here is really very special indeed; using reality and imagination, past and present, and the appropriation of specific, pop-cultural reference points to create this sad and somewhat tragic character who finally finds an outlet for all of her hopes and dreams in this evocative, rural setting.
If you're familiar with director Isao Takahata's earlier Ghibli film, the highly acclaimed Grave of the Fireflies (1987), then you'll be somewhat familiar with his personal approach to storytelling, which here, takes full advantage of a rural period setting, the complex relationship between the various characters, the ideas of time and memory, and a creation of a particular world that stresses realism and accuracy to almost the smallest detail. With this is mind, I'd rate Takahata as not only one of the greatest animation directors of the last twenty-five years, but one of the greatest film directors of all time; easily on a par with the likes of Andrei Tarkovsky, Yasujirō Ozu, Kenji Mizoguchi, Miklós Jancsó, Peter Watkins, Michael Powell and Akira Kurosawa, etc, with the keen eye for detail, impeccable performances (both spoken and animated) and the overall approach to the story (which is entirely personal, but still completely fascinating) enlivening the drama and taking it beyond the merely adequate conventions of animated cinema to the next conceivable level of greatness.
Although I'm three years younger than the character of Taeko as presented in the film (and from a completely different background and generation) I could completely empathise with her situation and her dream of something much more rewarding than the bland office job and the continual expectations of family and friends. As a result, the film was more satisfying and more emotionally captivating than it might have been had I failed to make such a connection. As it was, the film forced me to think about my own childhood, and indeed, what the ten year old version of me would have made of the current twenty-four year old incarnation. Even if you fail to make a similar connection with Taeko, the film still works as a result of its memorable and entirely believable characters, the clever use of storytelling and that beautifully moving and somewhat magical finale. I guess some viewers will perhaps find it slow or harder to relate to, especially if you judge it at the same level of films like Spirited Away (2000) and Howl's Moving Castle (2005), however, those in the right frame of mind and willing to give themselves up the characters - emotionally speaking - will be rewarded with one of the most beautiful and carefully realised films of the last 20 years.
As much as I love those films of Hayao Miyazaki, Only Yesterday seems to affect me in a way that is entirely personal and unforgettable. The character, as both a ten year old and as a twenty-seven year old is perfectly rendered, acted and animated. The situations that occur in her life, in both of the separate time-lines, are believable and actually add something to the drama and her eventual switch in direction in those last few scenes. For me, Only Yesterday is simply great; a modern masterpiece to rival the aforementioned Grave of the Fireflies and a must for anyone with a real appreciation for intelligent, character-based, emotionally captivating cinema.