For several decades, the animated films of Studio Ghibli have been some of the most acclaimed and revered. Following his Oscar win in 2003, most of the recognition has been given to director Hayao Miyazaki. Admirers began to scour his filmography, consuming all that he produced before and creating a Western demand for everything that came after; Disney has since taken up the charge of releasing English dubs of his movies for North American audiences. But Miyazaki is not the studio’s only director and since his retirement, attention has spread to other filmmakers at Ghibli. Now, Isao Takahata’s Only Yesterday is receiving a North American theatrical release to celebrate its 25th anniversary.
Taeko (Daisy Ridley) works in Tokyo and is of an age at which people have begun to question why she is not yet married. But she’s content and in no hurry to alter her lifestyle. What is actually unusual is in the summer she uses her vacation time to go to the country and work on a farm. She’s befriended the family and is returning to help with the safflower harvest. However, during this trip she is accompanied by the memories of her fifth grade self whose experiences left an impression unrecognized until now. Recollecting these events out loud, she forms a bond with Toshio (Dev Patel), a young man who runs a nearby organic farm.
In an age of CG animation filled with smooth lines and dynamic everything, there is still something to be said about hand-drawn pictures. Often times the backgrounds and sets are stationary, clearly a permanent and unmoving part of the scene; lovely landscapes of valleys and trees, a road running through town or fields of rice paddies create the immobile backdrop for the action. Occasionally these are produced with a noticeably different technique, such as water colours, which adds an additional layer to the visual appeal. Conversely the characters move fluidly through these scenes, indiscernibly mixing with their surroundings.
The past takes precedence as Taeko reminisces about her childhood. She remembers her first crush; her first vacation outside of the city; dealing with puberty; having her dreams crushed; and learning some other difficult lessons. Most of the memories aren’t inspired by related incidents, but rather emerge as a result of Taeko examining this period of her life and revisiting these sometimes humorous and often emotional events. There are far fewer scenes involving the adult Taeko and they are much less eventful, though her budding relationship with Toshio does provide a point of interest.
Although the film is a little drawn out, it’s still a beautiful depiction of childhood’s confusions.