For a movie originally released in 1991, set in 1982 but frequently flashing back to 1966, much of Only Yesterday feels timeless. Directed by Grave of the Fireflies director Isao Takahata and adapted from a manga by Hotaru Okamoto and Yuko Tone, the themes of Only Yesterday –which was released in US theaters for the first time in 2016– will be familiar to anyone who has ever found themselves lost in childhood nostalgia and searching for meaning.
Only Yesterday follows Taeko (Daisy Ridley*) a dissatisfied 27-year-old Tokyo office worker as she takes a vacation to work on a farm picking safflower in the Japanese countryside. As Taeko acclimates to country life and grows closer to a young organic farmer named Toshio (Dev Patel), she unwittingly brings her 5th grade self (Alison Fernandez) along for the trip. Taeko begins flashing back to the moments that shaped her when she was 10, and as she recounts the moments of joy, embarrassment, and sadness in her past, she begins to reconsider the life she’s currently living.
Are there many feelings as universal as childhood nostalgia? The existence of a sequel series to Full House 21 years after the original went off the air and the slate of films based on Nicktoons of the 90s and early-00’s scheduled for the next few years seems to confirm that there aren’t. As someone who thinks about Hey Arnold! in a serious critical capacity on about a weekly basis, it’s a feeling with which I’m well acquainted. In Only Yesterday, Taeko and Toshio bond over songs from a TV show from their childhood; yet Only Yesterday really triumphs as it explores the aspects of childhood nostalgia from which other media tends to shy away. Only Yesterday explores the wonder and the fun of being a kid on the cusp of growing up, but it never backs away from the pains that come with it.
Animating Taeko’s memories of her childhood with a lighter palette and still, watercolor-esque backgrounds that fade to white the further they get from the center of the frame, Takahata and Studio Ghibli capture visually how we tend to picture our childhoods, lending Taeko’s recollections a dreamy quality. The style allows Taeko to soar through the air after she talks with her crush and take on the ultra-stylized look of an idol pop star when she imagines her inspired role as “Villager #1” in a school play might launch her to stardom; but by the same turn, it highlights the loneliness and sadness she feels when her friends leave her for summer vacation and the time she is slapped by her father. More than just stylistic choice, the dream-like quality of Taeko’s memories of 1966 prioritizes emotional truth. Only Yesterday takes children’s problems seriously, treating serious and trivial sources of sadness and anger with equal respect and attention. The film never flinches in documenting the embarrassment that accompanies Taeko learning about getting her period and the greater embarrassment of boys thinking they know what periods are (contagious, for one). Yet Taeko’s tantrum over refusing her sister’s “babyish” hand-me-down enamel bag, yet still secretly pining for it is treated with equal screen-time and gravitas. Adult Taeko is shaped by both events, and so the film examines each with the same import.
The original Japanese title of both the movie and manga, Omoide Poro Poro, translates to “memories trickle down”, and that’s a pretty accurate reflection of the film. Only Yesterday is slowly paced, drifting contemplatively between the present (animated with harder lines and more realistic faces in comparison with the past), flashbacks, and Taeko’s inner-monologue. Only Yesterday realizes its points along with its heroine, taking its time and reaching conclusions in ways that feel entirely real. The romance between Taeko and Toshio isn’t built on gigantic moments of outsized passion, but rather on the smaller, revealing conversations and interactions upon which real romances built. As such, the conversations in Only Yesterday tend to go on longer than those in most other animated features, and they frequently tend towards the benefits and realities of organic farming more than the conversations in your standard Pixar and Dreamworks release. I mention this as I went in expecting a film closer in tone to the somewhat similarly themed, if more melodramatic Studio Ghibli release From Up on Poppy Hill, and instead found a film more introspective, but every bit as magical as Poppy Hill.
For the life of me, I cannot understand how it took nearly 25 years for Only Yesterday to receive an American release. While it likely doesn’t carry the same appeal to kids as the Ghibli films distributed through Disney, it’s hard to fathom what held up its Western release, particularly given the universality of its thematic concerns. The stellar voice-over work by Ridley, Patel, and Fernandez almost make up for the film’s quarter-century delay on American shores.
Only Yesterday fits into the tradition of animated movies about children that aren’t expressly for kids. While there’s little in this PG rated movie that parents would find objectionable for a younger set, the film represents the thought of an adult in ways perhaps understood by other adults. Anyone who’s lost some hours to thinking back on childhood will see something familiar in Only Yesterday. It’s a rare movie that’s at once deeply rooted in personal experience and still instantly relatable. Only Yesterday is a movie that encourages the viewer to laugh at the familiar, commiserate, and maybe think about their own childhood a little deeper
*The cast listed is that of the 2016 American dub