Director: Isao Takahata
Cast: The voices of Daisy Ridley, Dev Patel, Alison Fernandez, Grey Griffin, Matt Yang King, Meda Marshall, Laura Bailey, Ashley Eckstein
MPAA Rating: (for thematic elements, some rude behavior and smoking)
Running Time: 1:58
Release Date: 1/1/16 (limited); 3/11/16 (wider)
Review by Mark Dujsik | March 10, 2016
Finally receiving a theatrical release in the United States after a 25-year delay (via a version dubbed in English), the animated Only Yesterday is a lovely examination of the difficulties of childhood and the struggles of adulthood, as seen through the eyes and memories of a woman who is still figuring out her life. As a girl, she was learning what it means to grow up, and as a woman, she is recalling those lessons and trying to determine how they relate to the realities of being an adult.
The lessons and reality don't match exactly, but they rarely do. We learn what we're supposed to know from our parents, our siblings, our friends and acquaintances, and our teachers, but nobody ever really explains how that actually works out in the real world, with the added pressures and responsibilities of adulthood.
One eventually starts to learn that all of those lessons came from people who were probably still learning themselves. A parent is constantly learning and relearning how to be a parent. Siblings and friends grow apart as the years, the miles, and differing ambitions get in the way. They learned their own lessons, and they're going to follow them how they want.
The way that certain people, places, and things grounded us in childhood ends up looking quite appealing by comparison, even though we likely spent our time as children just waiting for moment we would finally grow up, already. That's when we'd be able to do what we want—but oh, kid, if you only knew that there will be times when you're not even sure what you want to do, on account of what you need to do.
That's the predicament of Taeko (voice of Daisy Ridley). She is 27 years old, lives and works in Tokyo, and is single. Her older sisters don't understand why she hasn't "settled down" with a husband to start a family by now, but she insists she isn't interested. She has a "good" job, in that it pays the bills and allows her time off for a vacation to the country. It's her second year heading out there to work in the fields. It's the first time in a while that Taeko has found something that she actually wants to do.
A trip to the country was something of which the young Taeko (voice of Alison Fernandez) could only dream. Her parents didn't have the money for such vacations. Her classmates' families did, and they would brag in front of 10-year-old Taeko. In 1966, though, she was able to take a daytrip to a village with an assortment of spas and baths with her grandmother (voice of Meda Marshall). When she saw the grand ceiling of the Roman bathhouse, Taeko was so overcome with awe that she fainted and nearly drowned.
The film shifts between these two times of Taeko's life, as her working vacation at a safflower farm brings back a flood of memories. Director Isao Takahata differentiates the two visually. The scenes of the past are brighter, yet the backdrops are only partially completed. The colors appear lightly penciled in between the rough lines, and both color and line gradually fade as they approach the edge of the frame, until there is only the off-white of the canvass. These are, after all, memories. They have faded with time, and we almost wonder if at some point in Taeko's life there will be more fading—or perhaps the images will become clearer in certain areas.
This is a film that seems to want us to make such considerations. Everything in the present day is boldly colored and naturalistically shaded. It feels more "real"—or as real as such things can be. The character designs remain the archetypes that we know so well, since this is a film based on the Japanese manga Omoide Poro Poro (which is also the title of the film in Japan and translates to "memories trickle down") written by Hotaru Okamoto and illustrated by Yuuko Tone.
Takahata's screenplay doesn't just consider the life and memories of Taeko, though. There are a pair of sequences that pause to offer lessons in agriculture. It explains the harvesting and fermenting of safflower petals to make dye—a job that was only performed by women who were too poor to afford the clothing that would result from their labors. Toshio (voice of Dev Patel), a relative of the husband of one of Taeko's sisters, tells Taeko of his passion for organic farming—how the old ways of doing things are returning. There's a sense of history here—more lessons passed on through the generations—that goes beyond one woman, who is still part of that history—or she could be if she wanted.
Most of the story, though, is in Taeko's memories and the way she, as an adult, attempts to piece together some semblance of meaning from them. There's the time she felt the first feelings of something akin to romantic love for a boy from another class—a talented baseball player who is almost too shy to even talk about the weather with his crush. There is the naïvely cruel taunting of confused, scared boys who learn about menstruation second-hand and proceed to throw around the word "period" like it's going out of style.
She receives hand-me-downs from her older sisters Nanako (voice of Laura Bailey) and Yaeko (voice of Ashley Eckstein), who don't understand why their little sister struggles with math. Their mother (voice of Grey Griffin) tells her elder daughters to be patient with the girl because she's different, and what does that do to a 10-year-old who overhears such things from the women she loves? Her father (voice of Matt Yang King) sits silently at the dinner table, smoking a cigarette and offering only scolding when his daughters speak out of turn. He refuses to let Taeko participate in a college play. The older Taeko says she never really wanted to be an actress, but how does she know if she never had the chance?
Only Yesterday ultimately positions these seemingly ordinary events, not as answers to or explanations for Taeko's predicament, but as a reminder that the process of growing up doesn't end with the end of childhood. The answers to what we want are simple, if we only let ourselves see them.
Copyright © 2016 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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