Only Yesterday is both like and unlike other movies by Studio Ghibli. A delightful character drama, the film follows 27-year-old Taeko Okajima in 1982, as she goes on a holiday to a rural farm in the Yamagata prefecture in northern Japan, taking a leave from her office job in Tokyo. As she undertakes travel, her 10-year-old self gives her company. This leads Taeko down the path of discovering herself by rediscovering her past self. Instead of entering the mystical realm like many of her Ghibli counterparts, she enters the memory realm, reminiscing and looking back to how she was as a 10-year-old fifth-grader. What her perception of herself and those around her then, was.
Taeko lives by herself in Tokyo and works a job that doesn’t necessarily excite her. While she is not in-your-face unhappy, she is discontent with life. She feels she is just passing away with time, not being fulfilled. Having spent her whole life in Tokyo, she feels that she never truly expressed herself well her whole life. Each flashback presents a window into the compromises she made growing up. It is no secret that the inner confidence nurtured during childhood is what mainly sets in motion a strong sense of identity, which is required for adult intimacy. When this confidence is low, it makes you put off your dreams. And we see this with Taeko. As a kid, she was never able to explore and figure out what she loved doing which resulted in her ending up in an office job that hardly fulfilled her. This lack of exploration was a combination of her family’s general curtailment and her limits to understanding how to go about it.
I found it impossible to watch the movie without thinking back on my childhood. The 1982 Taeko is very close to my age. I could not help but relate with her frustrations of growing up, her regret of missing out, of what could have been. The 10-year-old Taeko is failing at Math, fights with her sister to get her old handbag, gets scolded by her mother for not eating everything in her tiffin, has a reserved, patriarchal father and has a very awkward first crush story. All of the things I went through. Taeko is a character I saw myself relating to quite a lot. Her yearning for something more from life, her dissatisfaction with life, something she could neither articulate nor dismiss, felt like my own thoughts.
Taeko tends to the hurting inner child of her by processing the throbbing recollections of the past through the lens of her adult understanding. Currently working on a project that requires me to poke people to be more examinative and nostalgic while telling their stories, this movie holds a new meaning for me now. It is your past that shapes your present self. The way the 1982 Taeko reflects and learns from her 10 years old self is not just heartwarming but also relatable. Everyone goes through a point in their life when they realize that their life didn’t turn out to be the way they had imagined as kids. Reminiscing is closely related to retrospection. It is hard to do one without the other.
The sense I got when viewing the film was that Taeko’s life between the 1960s and the 1980s has been wasted. Family pressures, her father’s conservatism and her inactivity, all led to her being bound to Tokyo, despite her ceaseless adulation for rural life. It is only when she actively decides to escape her self-imposed prison of city life that her early life attains the freedom to express itself to her. The movie time and again reminds us how not coming to terms with our past has the power to affect the rest of our life. We have all looked back on who we were to inform us of what we want to be. Even near the ending when she is presented with an opportunity to start a new life in the countryside with Toshio, she gets scared of the possibility and boards the train back to Tokyo. It is only with the nudge of her 10-year-old self that she finds the courage to embark on this uncertain path.
The film operates through two time periods of the past and the present. Scenes transition effortlessly between 1982 and 1966. The temporal transitions are easily distinguishable due to the use of different tones and colour pallets. The shots of the past have a very dainty aspect to them, while the shots of the present have realistic details. Not only are the drawings beautiful, the movie spends enough time on frames to allow the audience to take in the beauty of the landscape they show.
The movie also depicts the gap between urban and rural living, highlighting how Japan’s countryside is in decline through expanding wealth in its increasingly urbanised areas. The characters also engage in debate about the gap between rural and urban dwellers. Taeko finds her city life transformed when she finally gets a chance to visit the countryside. She senses the importance of community life and the sense of belonging and understanding it brings, something she missed in her isolated city living. On the other hand, Toshio who was initially sceptical about city life and city dwellers opens up about the struggles of people living in the countryside. How most residents of the countryside prefer to move to the city because of its charm of opportunities. Through his character, the film tries to bring attention to the resentment among the agricultural sector for the city dwellers.
While the film has many moments of aggrandising the rural and natural landscape, it does not offer a verdict on one being better than the other. While Taeko brings forth the monotony and loneliness of urban living, Toshio talks about the hardships and fewer opportunities in rural living. The loss of nature is also commented on by both. While Tokyo represents the over urbanised, concrete jungle, the rural landscapes aren’t exactly natural either. What Taeko sees as natural, Toshio sees as the landscape altered over generations of human habitation. Toshio is a farmer and a strong propagator of organic farming, a dying practice in 1982 Japan. He strongly believes that traditional agricultural practices could rejuvenate life forces naturally. The animation also brings forth the differences between condensed urban life and sprawling rural life.
Released over 30 years ago, the movie remains a mature and sophisticated addition to the Ghibli catalogue. The director Isao Takahata, who directed only five films for the studio is considered by many Studio Ghibli fans as the writer to Hayao Miyazaki’s animator. The left-brainer to Miyazaki’s right. He wonderfully portrays the ordinariness of life, reminding us that excitement can be found anywhere, casting a new outlook on the everyday. With his grounded approach he presents the all too familiar events in a manner that grants us new insight into the human condition.
The movie is also very aptly named. The film puts forth a powerful narrative about the persistent march of time. It is a masterclass in reminding us of the speed at which childhood can pass us and how closely those memories remain with us. That it is the fleeting nature of moments that make them resonate with us. It hits you on an emotional level because of its apt portrayal of the truth. The characters don’t become perfect by the end, just at peace with themselves.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.