Studio Ghibli’s release of ONLY YESTERDAY(1991) in Japan may seem like a lifetime ago but the low-key adult drama remains a timeless, poignant classic to this day. Unfortunately, its auteur director, Isao Takahata, passed away prematurely just this year. Though never quite as celebrated as his fellow Studio Ghibli co-founder, Hayao Miyazaki, Takahata was equally influential in forging the global reputation of Japanese animation. He consistently bent the medium throughout his illustrious career despite never being an animator himself. He explored a diverse range of visual styles, from GRAVE OF THE FIREFLIES(1988) to THE TALE OF PRINCESS KAGUYA(2013). Today we want to highlight one of his more understated and underappreciated works, ONLY YESTERDAY, and how it embodied his directorial spirit.

A Trip Down Yamagata Memory Lane

ONLY YESTERDAY follows Taeko Okajima, a 27-year-old single woman working an office job in Tokyo. The film opens with Taeko deciding to visit her extended family in the Yamagata countryside to help harvest safflowers. Deep down, however, she yearns to escape the stresses of city life and reevaluate her career goals. She hopes that this change of scenery can get her back in touch with her roots and grant her the spiritual answers she seeks.

Only Yesterday Clash of Times
Taeko reminiscing on a sleeper train as her fifth grade-self pops up nearby. | Image: The New York Times

Taeko’s rural getaway dredges up images of her youth in unexpectedly intense ways. The film’s Japanese title, OMOIDE PORO PORO, literally means “memories trickling down.” This aptly describes how Taeko’s childhood comes flooding back to her. Sometimes parts of her memories will even overlap with the present to represent how heightened her nostalgic senses are!

Some childhood episodes she remembers are amusing and charming: the stirrings of youthful romance, the annoyances of elementary math. Others are somber and even occasionally disturbing: the awkwardness of menstruation, the cruel coldness of a father who silences his daughter’s wish to become an actress. These vivid recollections make her wonder whether she has stayed true to the dreams of her adolescent self.

ONLY YESTERDAY captures the bittersweet longing of nostalgia like no other. It can be unnerving to relive previous experiences, but sometimes we need to stop and look back to figure out what is best for our future. Taeko’s passage of self-discovery illustrates the value of introspection for personal growth. By working through the past with people who sympathize with her anxieties, Taeko steadily gathers the courage to pursue what makes her happy.

A World within a World

Takahata displayed a keen interest in expanding the aesthetic of anime. This is especially evident in the dual visual identity of ONLY YESTERDAY. On one hand, Taeko’s adult life is awash in bold color and detail, emphasizing tangibility of the present. From the branding on office equipment to the individual bristles of Yamagata safflowers, everything is depicted in a painstaking manner. The Ghibli staff even religiously took field trips to the real safflower flower farm that appears in the film!

Only Yesterday Yamagata Countryside
Takahata took special care to capture the natural beauty of the Yamagata countryside | Image: DVD Talk

Taeko’s childhood scenes, however, are rendered in slightly muted, light watercolors. The backgrounds seem to have an “unfinished” quality to them, a bit hazy in places as memories tend to be. Viewers can infer parts of adult Taeko’s psyche based on which fragments of her memories stayed with her. The stark visual contrast ends up allowing for a more whimsical approach to storytelling.

Only Yesterday Faded Memory
Fading at the edges signify a world only partially regained to the senses | Image: IMDB

Takahata took that whimsicality even further by sprinkling elements of magic in Taeko’s memories. In one particular scene, young Taeko successfully exchanges a few words with a boy who has a crush on her (according to her giggling classmates). Ecstatic, Taeko literally runs up into the sky and then soars the way home. It’s a wholesome moment, playing into the wild imagination of a young girl. It represents Takahata’s philosophy to blend the impressionistic joy of animation with the beauty of the mundane.

Same Story, Different Faces

To add to the realism of the film, Takahata prioritized making the adult characters look and feel like actual adults. He specifically focused on capturing real-life facial muscles and expressions. To achieve this, he had the dialogue recorded first. He then had the animators fit the animation to the spoken dialogue. This was quite unusual, as voice recording is traditionally the final step in anime production. Takahata encouraged his animators to watch VHS clips of the recording sessions, using the voice actors as models for the characters they voiced.

Only Yesterday Facial Muscles
Takahata’s focus on realistic facial structures was novel back then. | Image: Ani-Gamers

Taeko’s childhood scenes however were animated before the voices were recorded, as per industry standards. The staff incorporated more flat, minimalistic character designs, adhering to the aesthetic of Studio Ghibli’s usual output. This was to make adult Taeko look strikingly older and wiser with her contoured facial features. It also reinforced how we tend to view memories from our youth with rose-tinted glasses.

Only Yesterday Anime Faces
Typical anime-style faces in Taeko’s memories | Image: GKIDS Films

A Melodic Marriage of East and West

ONLY YESTERDAY is defined not only by its visuals but also by its quirky soundtrack. The music carries considerable Eastern European influences, intended to draw parallels with Japanese rustic life. One particularly memorable sequence is when Taeko first arrives at the farm as dawn settles in. Her relatives greet her warmly and they start harvesting the safflowers right away. A Romanian folk song (Fluttering Green Leaves Wedding Song) swells alongside the majestic sunrise behind the distant mountains. It’s a vibrantly composed scene that will take your breath away.

Takahata made a concerted effort to include Hungarian-style music as well. Perhaps most prominently, Brahms’ “Hungarian Dance No. 5” plays in a scene where Taeko is deep in thought while eating lunch. Bulgarian folklore tunes such as “Dilmano, Dilbero,” followed by “Malka Moma Dvori Mete” also accompany landscape scenes to great effect. The lyrics of both express the main themes of the film—bucolic life and marriage.

Only Yesterday Yamagata Countryside 2
Scene of sunrise in a field of flowers set to a Romanian folk tune. | Image: GKIDS Films

Isao Takahata: A Painter of Humanity

ONLY YESTERDAY epitomized Takahata’s resolve to take on stories that Western audiences wouldn’t necessarily associate with animation. His films were not flashy in the way Miyazaki incorporated fantasy set-pieces and sweeping narratives in his works. They were, by and large, meditative character dramas. Takahata’s protagonists were ordinary folk whose lives he carefully examined through the lens of animation.

The double release of MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO and GRAVE OF THE FIREFLIES in 1988 is a good example of the fundamental dichotomy in film-making between the two prominent directors at Ghibli. Miyazaki’s MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO was a fantasy about a pair of young siblings going on adventures with friendly forest spirits. Takahata’s GRAVE OF THE FIREFLIES was a World War II drama about a pair of young siblings trying to survive in the aftermath of an Allied fire bombing. Miyazaki always intended to show people something they’ve never seen before and spark their imagination. Takahata’s approach was more grounded, presenting familiar events to grant us new insight into the human condition.

Totoro Fireflies Contrast
The 1-2 punch of MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO and GRAVE OF THE FIREFLIES in 1988. | Image: Nerdist

With ONLY YESTERDAY, Takahata furthered his realistic style, portraying the situation of Japanese women with such subtlety and sensitivity. The story of a Tokyo office lady reminiscing about her childhood was radical for straying away from Ghibli fantasy fare. Much to the staff’s surprise however, the film was a huge box office success. It attracted a sizable adult audience of all genders and became the country’s biggest homegrown hit of that year.

ONLY YESTERDAY, Another Tomorrow

ONLY YESTERDAY is an experience that can speak to adult audiences today as it did nearly 30 years ago when it premiered. The film struck a huge chord with me on the first watch, leading me to reevaluate my life and embrace the past. It’s also a rare thing to see such a stirring and sincere depiction of femininity in anime at all. While ONLY YESTERDAY tends to fly under the radar when discussing Ghibli fan-favorites, there’s no denying it had a quiet but powerful impact on many people. ONLY YESTERDAY will always hold a special place in my heart as something I will appreciate over and over again as I grow older.

Only Yesterday Nostalgic Bus Ride
Taeko’s journey shows how memories not only shape and define us, but also move us forward. | Image: GKIDS Films

In a way, Isao Takahata resembled the very works he cultivated. He exuded empathy and kindness to his peers. He would always try to shy away from the spotlight as his associate Miyazaki propelled himself to iconic status. But Takahata was arguably his equal in art and animation. He helped foster my love of cinema and shape my perspective of what film is capable of. Thankfully all of his Ghibli directorial efforts are currently available in Blu-ray and DVD format. In honor of Takahata, I encourage everyone to go see these movies and experience the magic that he produced so effortlessly.

Featured image from GKIDS Films

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