Only Yesterday

Every now and then, you watch something you never thought you would. This was definitely the case with Only Yesterday, a little-known film from Studio Ghibli that, for whatever reason, didn’t make it to the West. Released in 1991, it remains undubbed in English, and the only way to find it at all is online in subtitles. However, Infinite Rainy Day insists I keep a regular schedule, and seeing as how I’d recently watched When Marnie Was There in theatres I figured I might as well give it a go too.

The film follows Taeko, a 27 year-old living in Japan in 1983, as she takes the week off work to pick safflowers in the countryside. Taeko is a single woman who’s terrified of long-term relationships, yet doesn’t understand why. The only clues are constant flashbacks to her childhood in 1966, where we learn of her family-life, close friends and other details about her 10 year-old self. As the two time periods collide, we’re left wondering: who is Taeko? And why can’t she let the past go?

Only Yesterday is director Isao Takahata’s second film under the Studio Ghibli banner. While never garnering the status globally of his friend and fellow-director Hayao Miyazaki, he’s a revered legend in his home country of Japan, having received accolades for 1988’s Grave of the Fireflies. The film, dealing with the struggle of two siblings in Japan during the tail-end of WWII, is regarded as one of the greatest films ever, and while Only Yesterday can’t compete with that title, it’s interesting in its own and unique way.

The most-obvious points of note are the film’s production value and aesthetically pleasing animation. Studio Ghibli fans no doubt take this for granted now, but the studio’s fortunes were far different back then. Up until this point, their only financial success was 1989’s Kiki’s Delivery Service, and that was after three, consecutive commercial bombs. Toho, the studio’s parent company, wasn’t throwing money at them left-right-and-centre yet, so to be given a limited budget, especially under a director notorious for going over budget, and still look great is no easy feat.

And yet, Only Yesterday is a great looking movie. It’s especially impressive with the sharp contrast between the rough, grittier look of the then-present and the more innocent and bright look of the film’s past setting. And all of this on hand-drawn cels. Because unlike today’s animation, a single cel could take hours of manual labour to cut. Therefore, it’s a testament to Studio Ghibli’s talent, as well as Takahata's directorial prowess, that everything is held together during Only Yesterday’s 111-minute runtime.

The two time-periods also match surprisingly well. In many instances of flashbacks, it’s pretty easy to fall into the trap of different aesthetics clashing. Only Yesterday subverts that problem, as each setting feels appropriate for Taeko. Her past is vibrant and nostalgic, her present dirty and grungy. They, therefore, compliment one-another well.

That’s not to say the scenes included in the flashbacks are always necessary. They might fit thematically, but they often feel out-of-place narratively. And they drag on at times, such that I often found myself glancing at the clock and wondering when a conclusion would be reached. But length and pacing are problems I have with Isao Takahata films in general, so it’s not surprising that this film isn’t any different.

Musically, the film is simple and low-key. It uses a lot of jingles and quiet tunes to convey its present and its past, even incorporating popular radio and TV hits to convey a point. While this motif would resurface several times in future Studio Ghibli projects, here they feel mundane and unimpressive. And they’re not terribly memorable, which is a shame since said films would also have stand-outs. Here, they get the job done, and that’s it.

The movie also takes too long to get to its point. Switching between Taeko’s past and present is interesting, but that doesn’t mean they serve the story. They feel like vignettes instead of actually narrative progressions, much like My Neighbor Totoro. Except that, unlike My Neighbor Totoro, the film isn’t set up that way. There are no breaks to indicate time jumps or thematic change, they happen and that’s it. The movie moves along as if they were more important than they actually were.

Speaking of which, the film is overly sentimental about the 60’s. Perhaps it’s because I never grew up then, but I don’t see what’s so special about that decade based on this film alone. Yet Only Yesterday loves it, as so much time is spent in 1966. And by the way, why 1966? What’s so special about that year specifically? We don’t find out until the last 20 or so minutes, and even then…yeah, why 1966? The timeline deals with plenty of subjects more fitting for middle school, such as menstruation and puppy love, so why not 1969 instead?

That’s not to say that the 1983 timeline is innocent either. We see Taeko develop a close bond with one of her male friends, and their relationship feels pretty unordinary. And then the last 20 minutes happen, and we’re expected to swallow a romance. Even Taeko is initially put off, but by the end of the film it’s clear that she’s stopped resisting. And, let’s not forget, the end credits sequence, while touching, only further cements how predictable and ridiculous it is.

Only Yesterday is also weirdly edited at times, both in the past and the present. In the past, there are instances of frame jumps that are clearly intentional, but come off as jarring. They play well to the strengths of animation, further reason why Only Yesterday chose that medium, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t bizarre. And the present timeline stops partway through a scene to flash an ad for Puma shoes. Yes, those Puma shoes.

Two other complaints, both pretty minor, spring to mind: one, 27 year-old Taeko’s dimples are creepy. I know this is supposed to be realistic, but Taeko looks like an 80 year-old woman when she smiles. And two, the site I used to watch this movie didn’t subtitle a lot of key background conversations, which meant missing out on roughly 10% of the exchanges in this film. And it occasionally misspelled words. But that last one doesn’t effect quality, it’s merely a frustration.

Still, Only Yesterday is entertaining. It’s a quaint look at childhood and adulthood from the perspective of someone who isn’t at either stage mentally. And while it drags and doesn’t fully work narratively, it’s nice to see Taeko and her family’s faces while eating pineapple for their first time, or Taeko and her sister arguing over fractions, or Taeko crying because she’d been slapped by her father. It’s those simple moments I can relate to, having once been 10 years-old myself, and it’s nice that I wasn’t alone on many of my childhood challenges.

I can’t call this a masterpiece like many others, but it’s definitely a movie worth watching.


  1. Ah yes- one of only two Studio Ghibli movies I've never seen [the other being "Ocean Waves"].

    Granted, not having seen the film, its hard for me to say, but I wonder if we might be missing some sort of cultural context regarding Japanese perspectives on the 1960s that might allow this movie's use of the period to make more sense to you. Or maybe the only reason the sixties were chosen is that it just happened to be the period when Taeko was growing up, and so because she has nostalgia for her childhood, that makes it seem like the film itself is sentimental about the period, when its really just the character? I don't know, I'm just guessing here.

    "They might fit thematically, but they often feel out-of-place narratively."
    You could almost be describing Victor Hugo's authorial digressions in "Les Miserables". And Isao Takahata has a degree in French Literature. Interesting...

    1. I get the use of the 1960's, just not 1966 specifically. Nothing about this movie, save one or two instances, really emphasize the need for that specific year.

      Also, I've read Les Miserables. It doesn't feel as out of place with its narrative digressions as this movie does, at least in my opinion...

  2. Just thought I'd mention that I finally saw this film.

    I had no issue whatsoever with the dimples. Also, having now seen the film, I can only conclude that my original guess as to "why the 1960s":

    "that it just happened to be the period when Taeko was growing up, and so because she has nostalgia for her childhood, that makes it seem like the film itself is sentimental about the period, when its really just the character"

    is basically accurate. I'd extend the same logic to your question of "why 1966 specifically?" The specific year in which these evens occured is only important insofar as it signifies for Taeko [and by extension, the audience] precisely *when* these events that she is remembering occurred. It didn't *have* to be 1966 from a storytelling standpoint. But likewise, there was no real reason for it *not* to be 1966 either. The script just happened to settle upon that particular year. It doesn't really hurt the film in the slightest.

    I do sympathize with many of your other complaints, though, such as the abruptness of the transitions to and from the flashbacks [it became less of an issue as the film went on, but its quite noticeable in the first third], as well as the rushed nature of the romance at the end. I likewise felt the film's length- though, as with a lot of Takahata's films, it'd take me a little bit to pin down which exact moments and/or scenes could have been cut without hurting the overall product. For me, at least, his films manage to feel overlong whilst still feeling as though they've been structured in such a way that I'm not entirely sure what *could* be cut without detracting from his overall vision.

    I'd be lying if I said I didn't enjoy the film a fair bit overall, though. You're right about the strengths of the animation here, as well as the strengths of a number of different individual scenes. And even if her story could have been told a little more efficiently, I did find Taeko to be a compelling central characters.

    Some of my reasons for giving it might be different than yours, but I'd say your rating is basically the same as mine.

    1. The dimples are a cosmetic complaint, nothing serious. And I guess the whole "why 1966" question was more along the lines of "you could've picked 1967 or 1968, and it still would've worked fine." I get why Taeko went back to her childhood, but that specific year was never clear to me...


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