Taeko is not a beauty in the conventional sense. To say she is a bit awkward might be an understatement. And, as a child, she listened in on her mother express doubts about her basic intelligence, too exasperated with Taeko’s math grade to scold her. Yet, by the time you have finished viewing ONLY YESTERDAY (おもひでぽろぽろ), you will have fallen in love with her, unequivocally.
She might be from Tokyo, but she is no sharp dresser. Arriving at her vacation destination, a village with fields and woods spanning the horizon, Taeko is informed the work pants she is sporting are no longer worn around here, at least not by the local kids. You guessed it: she is no jetsetter; she likes the country. In fact, her choice is not to vacation at all; rather she cures her office blues by backbreaking work as a farmhand. She takes her sweet time reminiscing of her childhood – her twelve-year-old self fills her daydreams, and her conversations. This simple premise sustains a plot for a movie whose length is just two minutes shy of two hours. Taeko may not be your typical heroine, but this is an adult movie: adult in the sense of mature execution, although very accessible to children.
Let me address the animation first. It is a stylized expression by nature, right? Yet here it acts as a wonderful antidote to escapism, conjuring reality like you have never seen it before, making you look again at the world around you with the same sense of wonderment you surely possessed as a child. So, what if things are not perfect, and what if the concrete barriers lack color, what if a rural street looks empty? What if life offers a string of little disappointments and humiliations? Surely we are better off questioning the parental notion that bananas are “the king of fruit,” even though the pineapple was hard to cut, and even though it doesn’t taste as sweet as the stuff from the can. Surely we are better off acknowledging that boys are just ignorant oafs, if they think they could possibly catch a period from someone who really only has a cold.
But I may be getting a little ahead of myself: let me start from the beginning. Then again, it is hard to do, even for our heroine. She is drifting in and out of the present and the past, trying to sort out her memories, and her feelings. One minute she is picking prickly safflowers and ruminates about the girls of yore who were forced to do the work without protective gloves. The next thing you know, barging in comes Hirota, courting the twelve-year old Taeko. Who could resist him, the star baseball player that he is. And so the little girl literally floats on clouds, doing breaststroke high over the trees. All right, perhaps the animation is not all that realistic.
They did take some liberties. But what wonderful liberties they were! Taeko can watch her long grown-up schoolmates run in the narrow hallways in the railroad car, and we can watch them push her aboard a bus, and cheer for her, in the final sequence. But then, the soft colors that veil her memories are replaced by the clear-cut shapes of the present: the small car that Toshio is driving, the cigarette butts he digs for in the ashtray, his jawline, his red trucker hat, a grin that is all teeth, the yellow safflowers. Why, yes, who again was Toshio? An organic farmer in the summer (the film was released in 1991, so this was definitely not a fashion statement targeting yuppie, hipster shoppers), a ski instructor over the winter, he also drives Taeko around. Toshio reminds her he was at the dance, a year ago, does she remember? He listens to Hungarian folk music, because it is, well, music by the farmers for the farmers, or some such reasoning.
I was very touched by the soundtrack that drew heavily on Eastern European folklore. Unexpectedly, it took me to my cultural roots. Cimbalom is not an instrument you hear in California frequently. So here, in a Japanese animated feature, I found a haven complete with the familiar sounds of my childhood. How nostalgic! I could go on about the quivering strings, and the clean female vocals. There are so many more small things that happen, you see; I feel the urge to list them all, because they trickle together like a stream to become one epic hurrah at the very end. Complete with an over-the-top, sentimental, sappy song, an outpouring of emotion awaits the viewer as a reward. Will Taeko have selected it? Does it matter?
Her shoes or hairstyle, or a failure to star in a college play say nothing about her humanity if regarded individually. As a sum, the choices we make ultimately speak to what we find important. The audience surely recognizes themselves in Taeko’s self-discovery process. Perhaps that is why the film is so uplifting – while the narrative unfolds a series of flops (a spa trip that ended in fainting, a summer break spent in an empty playground, damned onions forced on Taeko by adults), it forgives the nuisances their own insignificance, rendering them a laughing matter. Now, it doesn’t hurt anymore to look back at former grievances. Now, one is allowed to blush a little and feel tenderness towards their younger, smaller selves.
It is my understanding that ONLY YESTERDAY was never released in the United States. I was fortunate enough to see it as a part of the Studio Ghibli Tribute at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica last week. The quality of the animation was quite astonishing – the level of detail was marvelous, the rendering of the 60s and 80s was distinct not only in pertinent period paraphernalia, but also by creating two very different atmospheres for the narrative’s present and past arcs. A lot was achieved through the use of color and its saturation to distinguish the portions of the story not only on the time axis, but also providing them with a different emotional charge. Isao Takahata as both the director, and screenwriter, has produced a subtle story with universal appeal, quiet and subdued, and truly very memorable.