Further Reflections on Only Yesterday

A while back, I saw Only Yesterday online for Infinite Rainy Day. However, that was before its theatrical release in North America. Seeing as how I’d watched the film illegally and in its original language, I figured it’d be a good opportunity to see it again in a language I understood. After all, I don’t speak Japanese and would never pass up a chance to watch a film at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, so why not?

I’d like to state upfront that this won’t be a re-review. Aside from that being redundant, my overall thoughts haven’t changed all that drastically. Save a few details here and there, it remains the most 7/10 film in the history of 7/10 films to ever 7/10. Instead, I’d like to discuss my experience the second time around, as well as any side-point I want to make about the movie. So if you were expecting me to pretend that my original piece was suddenly irrelevant, well…you’ll be disappointed.

Anyway, the first point I’d like to make is one I’ve brought up before, both in its self-contained story and the general context of Isao Takahata’s oeuvre: Only Yesterday is too long. I understand that Takahata thrives on atmosphere, perhaps even more than Hayao Miyazaki, and that anime films rely on slow-burn storytelling, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t draggy. The movie already started to drain on me before Taeko had gotten to the countryside to visit her family, and that’s not even a half-hour in. Additionally, my friend, who’s been joining me in seeing Studio Ghibli films in theatres since The Secret World of Arrietty debuted in the West in 2012, actually drifted off at a few points. It didn’t help that I was constantly antsy, leading to my phone dropping out of my pocket at one point, because of the slow-pace.

For those about to say what I think you’re gonna say, yes, I can sit through a slow-paced film. I love the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and Schindler’s List is my fifth-favourite film of all-time. I respect a great deal of slow-burns and arthouse movies, including the slice-of-life genre. But that’s because they make better use of their runtimes. Only Yesterday constantly strains my patience, as do most Takahata films, such that I think a good 20 or so minutes could’ve been shaved off and it’d have been fine. I’m not exactly sure where I’d shave said minutes, but I stand by my claim.

The other point I’d like to address is the dub. Studio Ghibli dubs, let-alone dubs in general, generate a lot of controversy for not stacking up to the Japanese. Aside from this claim being case-by-case, this film has received criticism from Anime News Network for not capturing the essence of the original language track:
“Takahata's original voice direction had some very subtle, nuanced touches: 1966 sounds far more like 'normal anime,' with its heightened reality and bold emotions, than 1982 does. If you look away from the screen, conversations between adult Taeko and Toshio, and indeed everybody from those segments, sound indistinguishable from a well-made live action drama. It's an extremely naturalistic sound that heightens the contrast between the two eras and allows a lot of the nuance in the characters to take root. The film cannot bloom fully without such delicate performances.

And while the dub has some fine work -- a telephone call between Taeko and her older sister earlier in the film stands out as particularly well done -- most of the nuance simply didn't make it through unscathed.”
This, I feel, is unfair for two reasons: firstly, it sounds snobbish. Perhaps the film sounds best in Japanese, I wouldn’t know because I don’t speak the language (my first viewing used subtitles, after all,) but that doesn’t mean that it should only be watched that way. It’d be like me insisting that the Babylonian Talmud be read in Aramaic, i.e. its original language, because of the specific diction choices and double entendres. Aside from Aramaic being a dead language, I don’t even speak it, it ignores the text’s ability to transcend time. The Babylonian Talmud has important lessons about Jewish law that can’t be ignored, and forcing people to read it in a language they don’t understand is cruel, unfair and liable to lose more meaning than if translated. Only Yesterday is no different in that regard.

And secondly, Only Yesterday’s dub is completely serviceable, perhaps even one of the best of Studio Ghibli. Is Dev Patel’s English accent the only negative? Absolutely, and I fail to understand why he couldn't throw it like Daisy Ridley did if he was able to do so in The Last Airbender. But I adjusted quickly. Not to mention, criticizing it for not matching the original completely ignores the lengths gone to ensure that many talented VAs and child actors voiced the side-characters. You rarely see much of the latter in high-profile dubs as is due to time and budget restrains, so it’s really short-sighted. This isn’t Grave of the Fireflies, where both dubs were hampered by a lack of appreciation or understanding of the source material, after all.

This is especially important because the dub resonated more with me than the subtitles did. For one, it’s a language I speak fluently, allowing for a better connection to the characters. And two, I understood most of the jokes and serious moments better. This was especially apparent in the scenes where Taeko’s family ate an underripe pineapple, the student assembly in Taeko’s school, when Taeko got slapped by her father for running out the front door in her socks and the argument over Taeko’s bad math grades. This doesn’t even include the scenes involving adult Taeko on the farm.

The one area that stood out most, perhaps, was when Taeko was selected to join a private theatre troupe because of her performance in her school play. In the subtitled version, Taeko made mention that she later discovered that it was a one-off, and that she wasn’t close to being as dramatically inclined as she’d thought. I didn’t get that because I don’t speak Japanese, so it was lost on me. In the dub, however, it made more sense once I realized that Taeko was performing about as poorly as your standard 10 year-old in a school play. As someone who used to perform in middle school and loved drama in high school, that hit home.

Honestly, a lot of aspects of Only Yesterday hit home with me on a personal level, perhaps more so the second time. Taeko’s insecurities about commitment especially struck a chord with me, especially given my own bad experiences. And given how I’m almost the same age as her, I'm turning 26 this July, and have felt the same, subtle pressure for marriage as her via friends and family, it stung when she was asked to marry Toshio in the third-act by her hosts.

I also related to young Taeko’s struggles far more than I initially thought. I also identified with Yaeko to an extent, being a middle child myself, but it was Taeko whom I really understood because her struggles mirrored some of mine: being a picky eater? Check. Constantly demanding attention? Check. Struggling in math and thinking she’s an idiot because of it? Are you sure you’re not reading my mind?

The movie also captures that sense of childlike wonder with Taeko’s past that speaks to me as a writer and creative mind. At first, I didn’t get it, thinking that it clashed with the harsher realities of the present. It wasn’t until I watched Chris Stuckmann’s review, where he drew the analogy to memories being romanticized, that I thought it over. It made that much more sense the second-time around with that knowledge in mind. I still think the vignettes occasionally lack context in the present setting, but at least now I understand them.

That having been said, a lot of the issues from my initial viewing remained the same. Ignoring the vignettes clashing with the present, the movie was too long, the ad for Puma shoes was distracting and the romance at the end was forced, a fact made worse by, upon reflection, Taeko’s reason for fearing commitment being tacky and shallow. The dub also decided to not translate a crucial song during one of the flashbacks into English, instead having Alison Fernandez sing it in Japanese. I understand that translating lyrics is difficult, especially since they’re more context sensitive than lines of dialogue, but the full point is lost when I can’t make out what she’s singing. I get the gist, Taeko’s rationalizing to herself that she’s a star in the making, but that extra push would’ve been clearer with an English track.

All of this leads to the pink elephant in the room, one that’s been echoed by critics who’ve praised the film: is Only Yesterday feminist-friendly? I guess. I’m not the biggest fan of saying that “women don’t need men/kids in their lives to be empowered”, since many feminists have both, but this film definitely tackles and deconstructs the “women as baby-makers” stereotype that’s still perpetuating today. And it was doing this as early as 1991, around the same time Disney movies were starting to understand that women aren’t only domestic servants! So it’s definitely progressive in that sense.

And yet, like I said earlier, she still ends up with Toshio. It’s as if the movie feels as though a woman can be independent, yet requires a man in her life at some point. Perhaps it’s Japan’s conservative values coming into play and clashing with what’s been built up prior, but…oh, so close! I really think the movie should’ve ended with Taeko appreciating that she doesn’t need a significant other, although I guess it’s too late for that. It’s disappointing.

Should you go see Only Yesterday? Yes, although you might be bored at some points during it. Regardless, Pixar and Disney might have the market share here in terms of box office, but Studio Ghibli has the better track-record of quality overall. And Only Yesterday maintains that, making Tales from Earthsea the sole blunder in the studio’s library. It’s not my favourite of Takahata’s works, or my favourite from Studio Ghibli, but it’s definitely interesting in its own right. I can’t fault it for that.


  1. You should try watching this film in the company of women who were children in the 60s, like I did on my second viewing. It really lends a sense of perspective you might not otherwise get.

    I still stand by my slightly higher rating than you of 8/10. I think I look a little more kindly on the romantic element than you, especially after my more recent viewing. The English dub [which I really want to thank you for sticking up for] arguably helped me to connect to it a bit better. But also, I have to admit that Taeko and Toshio actually have a legitimate chemistry as characters that -for me at least- transcends the rushed development of their relationship. Even if, realistically, I doubt they would have gotten romantically involved as quickly as they are implied to have done in the film's ending, I don't think the notion of them *eventually* marrying is actually that far fetched.

    " It’s as if the movie feels as though a woman can be independent, yet requires a man in her life at some point."
    I don't get the impression that's what the film was trying to say. I think the film does side with the notion that a relationship with a man *can* sometimes provide great emotional fulfillment for a woman [an idea that has some truth to it, if the story of my own mother's life as told by herself is any indication]. But I don't think its trying to say that *all* women *must* have a man at their side. Rather, I think its saying that in Taeko's case *specifically*, marriage to Toshio *specifically* will be beneficial. Does this allow the film to have its cake and eat it too? To a point, maybe. But that strikes me more as a side effect [albeit one that's admittedly convenient for Ghibli at the Japanese box office, perhaps] than an all-out effort to focus the film's message on appeasing the Japanese marriage ideal.

    In any case, I notice you neglect to mention the film's emphasis on a relationship with Toshio being *Taeko's* choice to make. That emphasis is, I think, very important to remember, and I'd argue that the ending can't be understood without it.

    As for what could be cut- I think some of the flashbacks in the first half hour could have been tightened [especially the one about puberty, which keeps going well after we've gotten the point]. Once Taeko meets Toshio at the station, the film is actually reasonably well-paced for the most part.

    As you can tell, I don't agree with everything you've said. Even so, this was a very pleasant follow-up piece. Whether I agree or not, I can definitely see where you're coming from.

    1. None of my family will watch the movie with me, so that's out of the question.

      As for the ending, I get that now, but it still felt unbelievably last-minute and conforming in my eyes. If it'd been better built up, I think it'd have been fine. But as is, meh.

      Also, the dub really did need to be defended. Especially since the review I linked to was a little unfair toward it...

    2. At least you didn't link ghibliblog's impressions from blu-ray.com. His remarks on the dub were even more scathing, damning it as an "emotionless, flat, endlessly breathy… everyone talks in that baby-like Shirley Temple voice." He even says it's one of the worst dubs he's ever heard. Then again, he's said that about EVERY single Disney-GKids-Ghibli dub, sans SPIRITED, THE WIND RISES, HOWL, and TOTORO.

      Speaking for myself, I too found the dub of ONLY YESTERDAY to be quite excellent, and it really made the film for me. I wasn't even bothered by Dev Patel at all; it did feel a bit odd to hear the British accent, but I quickly got used to it and on the whole I did enjoy the film. Alison Fernandez's turn as young Taeko was what really sold it for me.

    3. The thing about Patel's accent was that it stuck out like a sore thumb. You have pretty solid, American accents all-around...then you hear a British one. I'd have been fine with a Southern one, since Toshio's basically a farm boy, but that was too much for me.

      That said, I've learned to take dub complaints in stride, so a damning review of one doesn't bother me as much as it used to...


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