After watching Grave of the Fireflies, I was tempted to question: Will Isao Takahata ever outstrip his own masterpiece? I was wrong. With Only Yesterday, Takahata continues to expand his already remarkable oeuvre and reinforces his position as one of the leading neo-realism animators. As an animated film that manages to be poignant and nostalgic, while also close, personal and intimate, it’s no wonder that Only Yesterday score points a large adult audiences of both sexes.
Only Yesterday follows the story of a Tokyo office worker names Taeko who visits her elder sister’s in-laws in the country side during vacation and works as a farmhand there. At age 27, she is increasingly nostalgic and wistful for her childhood self, while simultaneously wrestling with adult issues of career, love and choice. In poetic shifts between the present and the past, Taeko broods over departing her past self and her own fear of seizing the chances.
Yasujiro Ozu’s influence is evident in Taeko’s meditation on generation conflicts, family relationships, puberty, nature, rural life, simple living and love. However, Takahata puts his own spin on these themes by intertwining the past and present, commenting on one another and dancing in celebration of the joys and sorrows of life. He has a gift for turning out heartfelt moments from every mundane events. Like many of Takahata’s films, the majority of Only Yesterday is devoted to portraying such events in meticulous details. I especially love the warm and fuzzy scene where Taeko’s family ate the exotic pineapple together for the first time. I giggle at Taeko’s sarcastic recount of the electric guitar boom in Japan following the Beatle’s visit. I’m endlessly enchanted by the expressionistic sequence where Taeko, after encountering her first crush, defies gravity, floats through the red sky and finally glides slowly into bed, while a giant heart emerges from her window.
The flashbacks are drawn in a style I’ve never seen before in an animated film. The screen is drawn very sparsely, almost like sketches from a beloved children’s book painted with watercolor, and the amount of visual details is strikingly meticulous. On the contrary, Only Yesterday’s present sequences are detailed in a splash of colors, family drama and a genuine eel of documentary realism. The life at present is not shown to be light or trivial; it is hard work at long hours with meagre pay, but it is portrayed in such a poetic tone that it exudes a contentment of a comfortable living. Takahata goes to great length to film the process of picking safflowers to make cosmetic dyes, with the majestic Hungarian folk and choir music. That moment is so perfectly zen that I feel like I’m watching nothing but the best scenery life has to offer, and I personally think it’s the greatest scene he has ever filmed.
Watching Only Yesterday, I can’t help thinking of it as Takahata’s thinly-disguised stab at his country’s conformist culture. Pitting the 27-yeard-old Taeko against her childhood self, you realize the great unspoken conflict in the movie. Namely, how did this precocious, quirky, headstrong child grow up to be the polite woman in the stale desk job? I’d also like to see the film as Takahata’s understated dismissal of Japan’s unrelenting corporate culture. At the time of the making of Only Yesterday, Japan’s bubble economy has burst, plunging the country into a cycle of prolonged recession, and Taeko’s comfort with a more traditional rural life fits in with this incidence. Overall, I can’t recommend this anime more. This is a work of genius – Ozu painted with watercolours that will appeal to many of us who used to be children and who are on the path to self-discovery.