Only Yesterday is a 1991 film from Studio Ghibli written and directed by Isao Takahata, also known for Grave of the Fireflies, Pom Poko, and Princess Kaguya. Only Yesterday was only recently released in the U.S. in 2016. It’s for this reason that I finally got the chance to watch it for the first time. It didn’t take long for me to realize I should have watched it at least ten years prior while I was just starting into my 20s, even if some of the messages wouldn’t have resonated as strongly with me back then.
We start with 27-year-old Taeko, an office worker in Tokyo, who takes a short vacation to work for the second summer on a farm in Yamagata. It is during this journey that Taeko begins to remember her 10-year-old self—her dreams, disappointments, and family life. Visions of her childhood overlay the present reality, and we at times see child Taeko peeking around corners at adult Taeko. As memories pile up and the end of her stay in the countryside draws near, a new possibility begins to emerge.
Story and Narrative Style
The overlap between past and present confused me for the smallest moment at the beginning before I realized the little girl and the woman were one and the same. Once that fact became clear, I quickly adjusted. Part of what threw me off at first were the countryside and home settings. Other than various modes of transportation and the colors, not much gives away the differences in the two time periods. This works well with forcing the viewer to focus more on the characters and their relationships with the people around them. Their interactions with one another as human beings, their emotions and changing desires, both change and remain the same. As adult Taeko looks on to teenager Naoko arguing for a popular style of sneaker, she recalls her childhood self pleading for a new purse instead of yet another hand-me-down from her older sister. These comparisons and self-reflections pepper the film and define Only Yesterday as a character piece.
The Taeko we see as an adult is optimistic and hard working. Her kindness extends to everyone and everything around her, elders, children, and peers. We see hints of this in her as a child, but as is usual for children her age, she can also be selfish and desire more than what is practical or acceptable. She had the strength to stand up for a bullied boy in her classroom, but was too weak to confront him herself. Pity and dislike for him intertwined, leaving behind regret.
This memory arrives near the end of the film when adult Taeko is confronted with the truth of her feelings towards the countryside and her own desires. Just like the child, the adult clings to a conventional image of success. She professes love for the fields and a slower pace of life, yet doesn’t even consider leaving the city.
Because we’ve witnessed scenes from her childhood, the expectations placed upon her even then by her father, mother, and sisters, we have an idea of why life as a farmer’s wife might surprise and scare her so much. Ten-year-old Taeko excelled at writing, but was condemned by her own family for her failure in math. She showed promise on the stage as an actor, but never pursued the dream because of her father’s preconceptions about the profession. She knew better than to belittle the poor boy in her class, but hated sitting next to him, sharing paperwork, and holding his dirty hands during activities.
Now a new future beckons. In the face of expectations and past opportunities pushed aside, it might be difficult to let go of what is deemed safe in favor of risk. Her family and current obligations stand on one side of the divide, while Yamagata holds its arms open on the other.
These two notions of family make for an interesting study. The past gives us the nuclear family of father, mother, grandmother, and two older sisters. They appear to want for nothing, a middle-class family that occasionally treats itself to exotic fruit out of season and dinner at a restaurant. Underneath the surface, however, are stiff expectations and tradition. Objectively, these are not bad things, but too much can be stifling. If Taeko’s more creative tendencies were nurtured, perhaps a different career would have awaited her as an adult. There were a number of times where I felt intensely uncomfortable with the way her parents handled their daughter, like when she ran out of the house without shoes, and when she was offered a role in a local play. Forget treating her like a child; those moments made Taeko seem more like an object, proof of a successful family without any of its own individuality. “Children should be seen and not heard,” indeed.
The community she temporarily joins in Yamagata, however, not only immediately takes her in as one of their own, but also treats her as a respected equal. They make clear their delight should she decide to stay permanently, but also accept her decision to return to Tokyo. Granted, she is not a child of theirs begging for treats or attention, but a distant relative contributing to the household. Their daily life differs greatly from the one we see from Taeko’s childhood, and seems less burdened by the image of a perfect family. They’re too busy living and working day to day.
Typically I would point to Taeko’s city job as an example of independence. Only Yesterday takes that idea and spins it around to a style of reverse migration where young people return to the countryside for work and peace of mind. For a film that came out in 1991, it’s certainly representative of many of the more current series discussing declining rural populations, like Hanasaku Iroha, Sakura Quest, and Silver Spoon.
We also see marriage on the platter as a path to happiness, though it is offered in two different ways. We learn through a phone call with her sister that Taeko had already declined an offer with a man from the city. Her age and future are cited as reasons to marry. Marriage is brought up again while in the countryside, this time to a local man slightly younger than her. Some might view the second pairing as a concession to expectations, but I see it more as affirmation of Taeko and Toshio’s shared viewpoints. They both worked in the city and both came to Yamagata to slow down. Despite the unconventional pairing of an older woman with a younger man—keep in mind they’re not that far apart in years—they can communicate openly in a healthy manner. Compared to the frequent silence between Taeko’s parents, Toshio and Taeko share something special.
Art and Animation
Other than the phenomenal character writing and relatable story, Only Yesterday also displays a gorgeous color palette. My favorite backgrounds feature Yamagata with its sprawling fields and modest homes. Then there are the memories with their equally well drawn settings, albeit in a noticeably muted color scheme and faded at the edges. As is standard for Ghibli films, the artistic quality has not faded with time. I could easily see the movie in its current form released now instead of in 1991.
The music also features Hungarian folk music in the form of singing farmers and whimsical strings and woodwinds. You get a clear sense of the country setting where Taeko will spend her days waking up early, picking safflower, and preparing it for consumer use. Female voices swell in harmony with the rising sun and it’s not difficult to imagine the sense of peace and accomplishment Taeko and the other workers feel.
Like Taeko’s younger self, I used to dream about my own grand path into adulthood, the careers I might pursue. After a short period of two hours of commute every day, I started to want something more fulfilling than what the city could offer me. Taeko is at a point in life where changes can still be made towards a different future. When she first squeezes into Toshio’s car and folk songs fill the cramped space, I can’t help but compare the dated vehicle and music to her faster-paced, seemingly more convenient life in Tokyo. The conversation that flows effortlessly between them and the views they see outside the glass promises to fulfill a need not satisfied by office work.
I’ve actually met a fair number of people who, like Taeko, turned away from corporate jobs in favor of farming. Thankfully, such a lifestyle is available where I live, and a healthy community supports local goods. The work isn’t easy, and the final product may differ in quality from season to season, but they find joy in communion with the land. Sometimes seeing their satisfaction and experiencing stories like Only Yesterday, I daydream about plunging my own hands into the soil. Then I remember how much I hate insects and how little sunlight reaches our yard. We can’t all be driven to the city, nor all return to the countryside. It is worth considering, from time to time, what we can do to enrich our lives and the world around us.
Rating: 2 dango
- 0 dango – average and forgettable.
- 1 dango – very good in its category.
- 2 dango – excellent show that is worth a try.
- 3 dango – exceptional show one must watch.