Taeko is a 27-year-old unmarried office worker in Tokyo. Having lived her whole life in the city, she enjoys vacationing in the rural areas of Japan and decides to visit the family of her brother-in-law to help with the safflower harvest at their farm. As she journeys there by train and then begins to spend time with her brother-in-law’s second cousin, Toshio, she reflects back on moments from her childhood, reconciling them with the person she is now.
Studio Ghibli released Isao Takahata’s Only Yesterday in Japan way back in 1991 to glowing acclaim and extremely healthy box office numbers as the highest-grossing movie in the country that year. And yet, despite the rabid popularity of Ghibli films in America, it has never received distribution here until now. Takahata, of course, co-founded Ghibli with Hayao Miyazaki and his films tended to be more emotional reality-based tales; his most famous work is probably the gut-wrenching war drama Grave of the Fireflies.
Likewise, Only Yesterday is not your typical anime film. It is a grounded and reflective coming-of-age tale that also offers a refreshing perspective on what it means to be a modern woman in a world still obsessed with traditional values. Despite pressure from family to settle down and find a husband, Taeko is determined to live her own life.
Where Takahata really excels here is in his incorporation of the numerous flashbacks. In fact, the direct translation of the original Japanese title is “Memories Trickle Down,” an apt description of the stylistic technique employed. Taeko thinks back on childhood moments of first love and awkward embarrassments in the same kind of fragmented way that we all think back on our lives. She explores the alternating regrets and fondness for her past in honest fashion, building up a portrait of a complex person through insightful details. Admittedly, some of the coming-of-age anecdotes can be a little overly sentimental or trivial, yet at the same time, it’s indicative of the way we all have memories that may be meaningful to only ourselves.
My one quibble is the fact that Only Yesterday is being released in an English-dubbed version only. It’s not that the voice acting of Daisy Ridley and Dev Patel as Taeko and Toshio is bad, I’ve just always found it a little disjointed to hear clear English dialogue (and in this case, British-accented) in what is such a distinctly Japanese environment.