Japanese Title: Omoide Poro Poro
Directed By: Isao Takahata
Produced By: Toshio Suzuki
Originally Released: July 20, 1991
I’ve come to think of Studio Ghibli as the masters of making boring stories about nothing happening feel absolutely captivating. Only Yesterday is a prime example of this idea. Despite being a film that could have been made in live action easily, and despite it being the story of a woman who goes to the country to farm for vacation as a way of escaping her meaningless office job, I somehow couldn’t manage to take my eyes off of the highly detailed drama that is Only Yesterday. With an extremely creative flashback mechanism, along with fantastic artwork and voice acting, Only Yesterday proves that the simple act of letting go of your missed opportunities in order to take one big risk can be moving, beautiful and even funny at times.
Set in the 1980’s as well as 1966, Only Yesterday is loosely based on josei manga (comics designed for women) created by Okamoto Hotaru and Tone Yuko. The story involved an 11 year old girl, Taeko, in the 1960’s. The film takes these short scenes and uses them to create a grander narrative and plot. Takahata also added the piece of having an older Taeko look back at her past as she tries to understand what her adult life is missing. This, in turn gives the film a sense of nostalgia but also of growth. While this part was very much added, Takahata stayed as true to the manga as possible when portraying the 1966 scenes.
Because of the two time periods, Only Yesterday plays out as two very different films, linked together by their central character. As a child, Taeko goes through a lot of things that we’re all familiar with. The first time she felt good at something. The first time she was horrible at something, in her case, math. Her first crush. Through her childhood we get to see little snippets of missed opportunities and chances not taken which eventually lead her to her adult life. Because of the childlike nature of these scenes, they often played out as funny, cute or charming. In one particular story, the girls find out they are going to get their periods in health class only to have the boys find out. This leads the boys to start looking up their skirts and yelling “You got your period!” If you haven’t seen the film, it might sound a bit horrifying, but it plays out with a sense of innocence and it is very captivating to watch these young girls cope with something that is just another part of growing up.
On the adult side, we see Taeko venture to the country to help harvest safflower. For her, this is an escape from her office job. She’s a single lady that doesn’t really have any drive or passion and has never quite figured out her place in the world. While I don’t love that a lot of her character is defined by the fact that she doesn’t have a boyfriend, this fact does help prove the point that through inaction, she has ended up with a life that is shallow and with nothing worth waking up in the morning for. The adult side of the story plays out as pretty dialogue heavy, and while the dialogue is incredibly thought provoking, anyone looking for a light animated film, might feel a little bogged down here.
But for anyone looking to really fall face first into some beautiful character development and thought provoking story telling, this one is going to be a joy to watch. It’s all about the little moments. Taeko talks about how she believes that anyone who was good at doing fractions ended up with a happy life. For her, that was a defining moment. And as she gets to know the leading man, Toshio, many of these moments are shared. She talks about her favorite TV show as a kid, and even goes in depth about a boy who bullied her. But Toshio is always there to provide another perspective, and at the end of the day, that’s what Taeko really needs. Perspective.
Much like Grave of the Fireflies, Only Yesterday is a story about how inaction leads consequences. Taeko is at the place in her life where she is because she never took a risk. She didn’t take that chance to be an actress. She didn’t get to know the boy who liked her. She didn’t really try in math class. Sure, the consequence is not as horrible as her sister dying. But nevertheless, she has ended up with life devoid of purpose. This makes the final moments when she finally gets off her train home and heads back to the farm so special. It’s as if she has finally reached adulthood and is ready to just go for it. It’s wonderful to see because moments earlier she is contemplating holding Toshio’s hand but just can’t bring herself to do it. She’s a character who has a hard time reaching out, but when she finally does, it is very rewarding to see.
There is a lot to love about this movie. From the wonderful story telling to the familiar moments that feel so real, but one thing I think deserves a mention is the voice acting. We watched this film entirely in Japanese, and while I may not be fit to judge Japanese voice work, I felt that it all sounded incredibly genuine and real. Nothing was over the top. If I closed my eyes, I was listening to real people. Especially Toshio who sounds like a very normal guy. His sigh’s and the way he tsks all seem to make him that much more real. Of course good voice work is important, but in a film like this where so much of the story is driven by the characters talking, it is even more vital that these characters feel like real human beings and they do. Each of them transcends the animation and seems like someone you could actually speak to in real life.
Only Yesterday is not for everyone. It’s a slow drama about growing up and the internal struggles we face between childhood and adulthood. It’s a film that consists of a ton of dialogue and clocking in at 2 hours long, if you aren’t prepared for a film like this, than you might come away disappointed. Is it boring? Absolutely not. But it’s also very grounded and in no way fantastical. Everything it does, it does very well. It’s bitter sweat and will constantly leave you smiling. From watching the family try a pineapple for the first time, to seeing Taeko pretend not to be sick so the boys won’t think she has a period, it is all adorable and extremely relatable. Only Yesterday belongs in the family of films which include things like Under the Tuscan Sun. It’s a brave journey about a woman learning who she is. It deserves to be watched and contemplated. Just don’t expect any cities in the sky or forest spirits.
NEXT UP: Porco Rosso