Only Yesterday

As one grows up, confronts, and acclimates to the hardships of adulthood, dreams change but don’t disappear. Held onto over long years, memories of happy moments and disappointments come to be seen in a different light—although, even with a matured understanding, the mere recall of painful moments can still hurt. An anime movie I saw recently, Only Yesterday, illustrates these themes unusually well.

Directed by the renowned Isao Takahata of Studio Ghibli, Only Yesterday was released in 1991. At thirty years old, it is already a retrospective in itself, but many of the troubles the young and adults face have hardly changed, or have progressed in trends addressed in the movie. So, aside from the nostalgia film’s knack for aging well, the time elapsed since Only Yesterday’s setting and production wiill seem the merest wink.

Curiously, while Only Yesterday is based on a nostalgic childhood manga, Omohide Poroporo (Memories Trickle Town) by Hotaru Omamoto and Yuko Tone, the original lacked the movie’s equally important adult plot, which Takahata added to create a more compelling, cinematic tale. Unlike other Studio Ghibli basis works, Omohide Poroporo has not seen an official release in English.

In the present it’s 1982, and Taeko Okajima is a 27-year-old career office worker, but we get to see no more of life at the office than her departure to the countryside, where she plans to stay with family of her brother-in-law for a ten day working vacation: she hopes to help out at the farm, bringing in the safflower harvest. On the sleeper train ride over, she begins recalling memories from 1966, when she was in a ten-year-old and in the 5th grade, and we’re treated to visualizations of her recollections. These include an early crush and moments of tense family drama, but also the first time she had a pineapple, or strained relationships with the boys when word gets out about periods, and precious moments with her early-budding friend Rie. 1966 wasn’t quite long ago enough for us to be treated to a wooden classroom, but it is interesting seeing how late Japanese Baby Boomers looked back on their early years when Generation X was arising.

The young Taeko is usually shown in flashbacks, but sometimes appears as another passenger on the overnight train; enough distance has grown between the 10- and 29-year-old Taekos that she often sees them as distinct people, such that the child might have her own judgments about her adult self’s actions if she had a say. The recollections continue dialogically when Taeko’s train arrives, and she’s met by her half-forgotten second cousin Toshio, who labors full-time on the farm.

Adorable as young Taeko and her peers are, Toshio is my favorite character. If some of the things I said above to introduce Only Yesterday seem a bit stiff and grandiose for an entertaining movie, Toshio sets me up for them. Part visionary gazing into the distances, Toshio has at present no vocation higher than farmer—he only just left office work himself for agriculture, he admits to Taeko—but is given to visionary, thoughtful speeches on man and nature, farm work, rustic life, labor and class, city and town, and the problems Japan faces. Since the adult story is not in the source manga, this is all Takahata speaking, and a worthy job he does. Those who found the moral universe of his 1994 ecological drama Pom Poko tiresome or simplistic will be relieved to find the orations and visual essays here, ultimately, more understanding and optimistic.

In my favorite scene Taeko and Toshio stop their car by a scenic bend of the road on a hill, and Toshio explains that while many mistakenly see the idyllic farms and wooded patches below as mere nature, man has shaped every bit of the idealized country landscape for hundreds of years, only creating the countryside through labor and struggle against nature. Taeko sometimes adds her thoughts to the mix, but Toshio helps her back to firm ground when she starts romanticizing. On saying that the farmers are doing the same things they did a century before, he corrects, No, even an organic farm like this one uses chemicals. Yet for all Toshio’s efforts to remain concrete, his broader perspective seems to point to some bigger future—speaking as he does, he could go into politics, labor organizing, or some other form of activism. But for now, he’s still a neophyte farmer. “Listen to me preach”, he reproves himself, and for all his ideas never indicates he wants to leave his new simple life.

As you may guess, Taeko isn’t hearing all of this with cool indifference. She’s quickly drawn into harvesting and preparing safflowers to collect the rouge dye extracted from them, a complex process that is lovingly shown, step by step, in the film. However, she is aware that she’s only on a break from her real job, and becomes dismissive of her initial enthusiasm playing at farming. In Toshio, who has taken up this picturesque career as his life’s work, she perceives something she lacks. But what are her feelings toward Toshio? During a sunset conversation between her, Toshio, and Naoko, a teenage girl who also helps out at the farm but is visibly beholden to trends (interestingly, on breaking it down, when she requests new, gasp, PUMA sneakers she claims everybody has, “everybody” turns out to be just four of her peers). Her folk’s refusal recalls to Taeko a time she was noticed in a school play, and scouted by a high school for their own production, only to be forbidden by her father, a man of few but firm words. He has no esteem for acting. The pain from losing this opportunity remains with Taeko, but Toshio tells her that he, Mr. Rural, wanted to move to Tokyo in his youth, but his father forbade that, too. Had he followed his passion, we’re left to think, where would they all be now? Naoko not getting her shoes takes on a greater meaning than frugality. The relationship between the two men who loom largest in Taeko’s life, as a child and an adult, is very significant, and is worthy material for sustained meditation. Notably, since Taeko is visiting in-laws, she doesn’t see any of the immediate family we saw in the 1966 scenes, so their characters remain fixed and seemingly eternal.

The music in Only Yesterday is excellent. In the rural scenes, East European folk music is used, some of it played on a tape deck in the movie and given attribution by Toshio. There is also a Japanese version of a song many will recognize, Amanda McBroom’s “The Rose”, but with new lyrics, and its use will remind Ghibli fans of “Take Me Home, Country Roads” in Whisper of the Heart.