There's never any sense in being mindlessly reverent about anything, even when those things are actually good, because then you miss out on finding your own reasons for why they're good. It took a few viewings for me to articulate why Hayao Miyazaki's Princess Mononoke was a truly great movie — both to tease out the film's nuances, and to stand clear of the conventional wisdom that anything by Studio Ghibli was automatically "classic". I had to clear my head this way for Isao Takahata's Only Yesterday, another Ghibli production that is only just now being released to English-speaking audiences some twenty-five years after its original release. It was worth the wait, not because it's a Ghibli film, but because it's a great film.
Inaccessibility and obscurity breed mythmaking, and our myths often exist to flatter us. It's tempting to cherish and defend something simply because of its rarity or obscurity, and to believe we are all the more discerning for liking rare things simply because they're rare. Anime fans have had to confront this all the more, as a great number of titles that never seemed like they would turn up in English are doing exactly that, and now have to be contended with as they are and not as we wish them to be. Only Yesterday has so much to recommend it on its own that it doesn't need the mythology of being a "missing Ghibli film" to prop it up.
What we're going to do right here is go back — way back
The original title of the film, Omoide poroporo, translates as something like "memories trickling down", an apt description of what happens within the main character. She, Taeko Okajima, is in her late twenties, unmarried, a Tokyoite with a respectable office job. There's a boundless energy to her that suggests someone who never completely grew up and is just fine with that. Her mother chides her over the phone about why she hasn't settled down with someone yet, and Taeko's response is to roll her eyes. She's going to do her own thing.
Case in point: her summer vacation. Last year, she took a sojourn out to a farm owned by her sister's family way up in Yamagata, where she spent a week helping out. This year, she's got the same thing lined up. Taeko has a great affection for that way of life, although even she's uncertain whether that's because she genuinely wants to live that way or because she has the luxury of returning to the city and the farmers don't.
Come to think of it, when she was a little girl back in 1966, she'd had the opposite problem — she'd envied all her schoolmates who had someplace else to go during the summer. So much so, she remembers, that she went with her grandmother to visit a whole slew of hot-spring baths. Or what about the time when her family spent all that money on a fresh pineapple — not one from the can! — and weren't even sure how to cut it up, and how let down everyone was when they found out how tart and stiff it was. Or …
And so it goes, as Taeko packs her bags and heads to the station to take an overnight sleeper train out to the country. At each turn, with each step, there's another memory that trickles down, like when she found herself with a crush on another boy, and was elated beyond words to think he might like her too. Over the course of that train ride, Taeko's past seems all the closer to her again. Between the girl she was then and the woman she is now is a more unbroken thread than she realized. The ghosts of her past are mot memory, but living parts of her present, and Takahata shows us these things as much as he tells us them. At one point the adult Taeko retreats into her sleeper bunk; moments later, we see the ten-year-old Taeko and her classmates bounding joyfully through the corridor outside.
Moving to the country
For the first quarter or so of the film, its patterns seem easy to predict. During Taeko's time in the country, her experiences will be colored and maybe ultimately also shaped by the dredging-up of her childhood memories. Then her train pulls into the station at Yamagata, where she's greeted rather fumblingly by a distant relative — Toshio, second cousin to her brother-in-law. He's a boundlessly enthusiastic sort, the kind of person who needs a few more eccentricities to fully quality as a Character with a capital C, but he's most of the way there.
In some ways Toshio is living out what Taeko has only dreamed about, as he left city life behind to work the land, and found it genuinely fulfilling. When Taeko talks to him about his work, she's clearly enthralled. Makes sense, given that she goes straight from a sleeper car to rolling up her sleeves and picking flowers in a field at sunup, the better to convert them to rouge and dye just like in the old days. "If I could've worked like this as a child," she thinks, "my school essays would have been really interesting."
Over the course of her week's vacation, two things happen. The first is how the substance of her reminiscing begins to change, how it becomes as much bittersweet as it is amused, how things around her now so casually provoke a prolonged reminiscence. When the daughter of the family she's staying with begs for a new pair of sneakers and gets turned down, Taeko remembers when she thew a childish fit about a handbag, and how that spoiled an evening out for the rest of the family. But it's not the memory itself that's important now, but what she does with it — she tells the daughter about the whole thing as a way to relate to her, to let her know she's not so alone. When you're a kid and you suffer the way only kids suffer, it feels like nobody else in the world has ever suffered as a kid.
The way I was
This leads into the other crucial thing that happens, the way Taeko begins using her memories that much more as currency, so to speak — as a way to connect with others around her, a way to learn that much more about them in turn. Toshio, for instance. I wondered early on if the reason Taeko shares her memories with him is not simply because she likes him (even if she doesn't seem to be paying much outward attention to that fact), but because she wonders if she can trust him. At one point the two take a day off to visit a local tourist spot, and she ventures to tell him about the time she flunked a math test.
But that reminiscence isn't just about how she was bad at math. It's also about the way she caught her mother saying that her daughter was "strange" — a word no Japanese mother would ever utter about her children! — and about the way her older sister condescended to her rather than empathized with her. Toshio responds to all this shared pain and confusion not with polite niceties, but with with things out of his own experience and perspective.
The way all this comes to a head is by way of a device that ought to be hoary as hell. When she's asked point-blank, "Why don't you just stay here and marry Toshio?", she flees in confusion. It doesn't matter if it's out of fear of commitment; what matters is that she feels like the others now see her as a slummer and a phony. When Toshio tracks her down and bring her back, she shares with him in his car another memory, about a pariah of a classmate who also despised her. And once again, with his words and insight, he proves to her that not only is he a good person, but she is one as well.
I think this whole act of give-and-take between them is the real underpinning of the film, the most central reason for its existence. We see Taeko's memories dramatized vividly as a way to make us understand how important they are to her, on the inside , but it's what she does with them on the outside that matters most. The way she brings herself to talk about those memories all the more with the people around her allows her to realize how we fulfill ourselves within the context of others — not merely by ourselves on our own, as Taeko has been for so long without admitting it.
A new way to look at it all
Why was Only Yesterday an animated film? The obvious answer is that it was an adaptation of a manga that Studio Ghibli picked up, but that amounts to a tautology, not an answer. Maybe the better question is, what is it about Only Yesterday that works because it's animation, and because it's not live action?
One of the things I come back to about animation and comics is that those media are reading and viewing instructions. When we see impossible things happen in animation, our sense of disbelief isn't as strained, because we've pre-emptively elected to suspend it. With a production like Only Yesterday, the effect is still there, but it works a different way — it allows Takahata and his crew to selectively depart from reality without it feeling forced or distracting.
Consider the early scene where Taeko meets her school crush at an intersection. It's wonderfully drawn, with late afternoon sun drenching everything at a low angle — but at the end of it, Takahata allows a moment of pure fantasy when Taeko bounds off as if to go home, but instead leaps up into the sky as if ascending an invisible staircase. Before, we had some idea of how she felt; now, we really know.
Other momentary departures from reality in the movie work the same way. They break from material reality to communicate a feeling, a state of mind, rather than factual information. I mentioned Taeko imagining her younger self running through the train corridor. But other moments scattered throughout work the same way, as when Taeko and Toshio touch hands and there's a visual quote from E.T.
Such imagery might seem self-conscious or overweening in a live-action film. Here, because it's all "drawings", our sense of what does and doesn't "belong" becomes a little more plastic, a little more freely played with. The Ghibli movies have never been less than technically excellent, but they have always had an advanced sense of how animation does things other media cannot, and how to get the most out of that.
Borne back from the past
Japanese popular culture is redolent with talk about memories, typically in a sentimental vein, and about the preciousness of making and keeping same. Rarely is there any actual insight, or any real leveraging of the concept; typically it's just stated as a fact, and I suspect most of the target audience for such material is fine with that. Only Yesterday tries to go a step beyond, though, as it isn't just about the fact Taeko remembers these things, or an attempt to invoke nostalgia in the audience by way of her Sixties childhood. It's about the way someone uses memory, the good and the bad alike, to reach out to others.
One possible criticism of the story is that it is anti- or at least counter-feminist — that it gives us a vivacious, independent woman who gives up city life to grub around on a farm, and that it sees the culmination of her life's arc in marriage to a man. Disputable at best: Taeko's issue, as such, is not that she's unmarried, but that she's disconnected — that despite her cheer and her charm, she's only capable of getting so close, never completely capable of letting go of the girl she used to be, and that only by offering up her past to others around her can she fully connect to others in the present, and in turn the future.
When the Studio Ghibli films began to show up in English courtesy of Walt Disney Studios, Only Yesterday was one of the titles that Disney elected not to pick up. I suspect the biggest reason was a sequence — a fairly lengthy and essential one — that goes into some detail about Taeko's classmates being educated about their menses, and the way the boys would tease them mercilessly about it. None of it is salacious; it's more matter-of-fact and even sad than anything else. It doesn't even attempt to be ribald, which comes as a welcome relief after god knows how many modern-day titles constructed to pander to thirty-somethings who want to think they're still fifteen. I guess for Disney, "family-friendly" means nothing that would spur any kind of honest talk between parents and children about such things. But GKIDS came to the rescue, as it did before with Takahata's own The Tale of Princess Kaguya and another last-days-of-Ghibli offering, When Marnie Was There. It presented Only Yesterday in theaters and on home video, uncut — and with an MPAA rating of PG, the same as Disney's own Zootopia and Frozen. Irony of ironies, all is irony.
What makes Only Yesterday worth cherishing is not simply the fact that it was unseen for so long, or that it has finally reached us intact and in the best possible way. It's that it never needed the cachet of obscurity, or even the Studio Ghibli label itself, to be considered a great piece of work.