Only Yesterday (1991)
Dir. Isao Takahata
Review by Abe Rose
Now that Studio Ghibli has ended its decades-long run, Only Yesterday will make you long for those old days when that monumental studio was pumping out great animated movies, one after another. The film was originally released in 1991, but it has not seen a U.S. theatrical release until now, 25 years later. When Disney bought the Studio Ghibli catalog, we have seen the release of every major Ghibli film, from Castle of Cagliostro to When Marnie Was There, excluding only one movie. This movie.
And why? Why would it take so long to release Only Yesterday? Grave of the Fireflies got a stateside release, and that animated film was about children starving in World War II. What sort of content would warrant an embargo on such a beautiful, animated film? For years, I wanted answers. Period.
The answer is periods. Not period in the declamatory sense, but period in the medical sense. This is perhaps the only animated film that I know of that explores the arrival of periods. When fifth-grader, Taeko, learns that one of her friends sometimes misses out on gym class because she has heavy periods, Taeko makes a determined effort not to ever get sick and get mistaken for missing gym class because of a period. She doesn’t want the association. When the boys learn of periods, they treat periods like the abominable, virulent cooties. The movie plays like a comedy when viewed by adults in reminiscence, but must play like a horror movie for fifth graders.
So why didn’t the film get a U.S. release before? My guess is that U.S. distributors either A.) failed health class and never learned of periods, or B.) they wanted all movies to reflect an imaginary world in which periods don’t exist, so they never have to talk about them. Isn’t it important, though, to actually have storytelling explore the emotional confusion of adolescence to guide young girls to a healthy position of accepting and understanding their bodies? The only children’s book that I can think of that does this is Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret, and that book tends to get banned from school libraries.
Only Yesterday opens topics of conversation largely missing from the animated world. The story is told in retrospect. As a 26-year-old, Taeko takes a break from her busy job in Tokyo to visit the countryside, the film simultaneously explores her memories of being a 10-year-old in elementary school during the sixties. She’s a fiery girl who seems to come at the world from a completely different mental angle. She’s unique, but does not conform to expectations, like a trapezoid trying to fit through a square peg. She excels at creative writing, but is a picky eater. Her mom complains, “I would rather you be a good eater than a good writer.” Taeko’s expression is a masterstroke of heart-breaking animation.
Taeko is failing math. Her family questions a bit too loudly if she is mentally challenged. “Why can’t you understand what one-half divided by two-thirds is?” Her older sister demands. She yells at her to just multiply by the reciprocal, and memorize that process. But Taeko draws the fraction as a pie graph and asks her sister to perform a visual demonstration. What does that exactly mean to divide by a fraction? Her sister can’t give her the visual demonstration, for she has only memorized the mechanics and not the meaning. The fundamental difference is that Taeko understands the world on a deeper level, and does not settle for the superficial. “Just do what I told you,” her sister demands.
10-year-old Taeko is in the process of discovering who she is, just as 26-year-old Taeko is caught in the same dilemma. Both deal with crushes, boys, choice of careers, and bigger existential questions about life. And just like Grave of the Fireflies or The Wind Rises, here is a non-fictional animated film that makes great use of the medium. The 1960’s are painted with lighter tones that seem to fade into nothingness, as if the scenes do not represent reality, but rather represents the idea of the past. And when adult Taeko wonders why she suddenly feels the memory of her 10-year-old self returning, the actual manifestation of her 10-year-old self comes and sits next to her on the bus. It’s a beautiful moment that wouldn’t have the same effect in a live-action film.
Like any good nostalgic narrative, the movie has healthy servings of hilarity and heartbreak. Her memories are filled with both exuberant joy and devastating disappointment. There’s a moment with a pineapple that perfectly balances varying degrees of emotional nuances. The family is eager to try the pineapple for the very first time, but no one knows how to actually eat it. When they finally do learn how to eat it, they slowly come to realize how much they don’t like it. They stop after a bite, except for Taeko. She looks disgusted but tries again. A tear rolls down her eye, as she realizes that it’s delicious. She is the only one that not only tastes the goodness, but actively tries again after initial disappointment, long after everyone else quits.
The film was directed by Isao Takahata who also directed what can arguably be the saddest animated movie ever made, Grave of the Fireflies. He also directed The Tale of Princess Kaguya, and that movie would be in contention for being the second saddest. The sad quality here is balanced with an equal measure of laughter and cheer. The movie contains such beautiful moments that you could cry even when nothing objectively sad is happening. You could cry just because it’s so beautiful. When a boy that has a crush on Taeko asks her what kind of season she likes most, it’s basically fifth-grade code for “I love you forever.” After he runs away in embarrassment and joy, she literally swims in the clouds.
While much debate has been made in America about women being under-represented in media and storytelling, we have finally started taking serious steps to address that in the past year. Star Wars, Mad Max, and other big franchises are starting to jump on that bandwagon. But entire decades before America got on this trend, Studio Ghibli has been making incredible films about inspirational women. The Tale of Princess Kaguya, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, Whisper of the Heart, Princess Mononoke, My Neighbor Totoro, and now finally we can include Only Yesterday, the lost Studio Ghibli masterpiece. If you consider it to be a 2016 film, it is the best film so far this year. If you consider it to be a 1991 film, it would be the best film of that year, too. It is one of the best animated films.