Mar 20, 2014
AnnoKano (All reviews)
There are plenty of films that can impress you the first time you watch them, but there are only a few that impress you more and more with every subsequent viewing. Only Yesterday is just such a movie, one so rich in depth that the first viewing is only as good as a passing glance at the painting of an old master.

Taeko Okajima is a twenty seven year old office worker in Tokyo. Summer holidays are fast approaching and Taeko is doing what she normally does, and will travel to work on a farm in the countryside. During the course of her journey she experiences an overwhelming sense of nostalgia and memories of her childhood. It is an effective plot device that allows us to witness two characters developing simultaneously and the influence one has in the formation of the other. Neither are exceptional in the conventional sense either; both of them are quite ordinary and on the face of it, unremarkable. However they are portrayed in such detail that they become fascinating.

The careful selection of a few key moments in a lifetime, many quite mundane in themselves, and weaving them into a solid depiction of a person that could be real and yet still maintaining the intrigue and direction of a complete story is an incredible achievement. One example is a scene in which the family gather to try Pineapples for the first time: on the face of it an unremarkable experience which most wouldn't care to mention. Yet in this one sequence we can learn so much about the characters: Taeko's father merely sighs, completely isolated from the rest of the family (of which he is the only male). Finding the taste bitter, Taeko and her sisters express their disgust. It symbolises the extinguishing of youthful optimism as one enters the stream of disappointments in adulthood. The transition into puberty is the driving theme behind Taeko's younger self, and the pineapple scene is only one of many illustrations of that difficult period of life.

Even though as adults we have all gone through that stage of life, when it is depicted in cinema it is often hard to take it seriously, and often characters of that age come across as simply bratty. Taeko’s character has these traits too but there is a balance to her character that prevents them from becoming overwhelming. When contrasted with the difficulties one faces as an adult, the problems of pre-teens seem inconsequential; so dwelling on them in cinema usually comes across as insignificant or even worse, just meaningless whining. This problem is alleviated in Only Yesterday by having Taeko’s older self to put them into balance, with her downplaying them after her reminiscence. What is truly masterful though is the way the audience can see their significance to the grown up Taeko, despite her modesty and our internal prejudices. This is what gives her character a sense of realness which I consider unmatched in film.

The overarching plot of the film is a fairly simple love story, unremarkable in itself, but built up by so much and portrayed so convincingly that one cannot help but weep at the beauty of it. Taeko meets a farmer called Toshio and feels quite smitten by his quaint, country ways; his eccentric taste in music, his dutiful politeness that exceeds into awkwardness. He is a representation of what Taeko finds so endearing about country life without being a crass characterisation of it. Yet as her time in the country goes on and her return to Tokyo looms, Taeko is faced with an internal crisis about whether the realities of the country life can match what she has fantasised about for so long, and if she really has what it takes to leave the comforts of Tokyo office life for one which, as she gradually begins to realise, faces a great deal more hardship for much less material reward. The love story is a touching and satisfying one, and it manages to achieve this for its own sake while still having a complexity which is often lacking in romance stories.

While one would be content to say nothing more about this film than the fantastic story and characters, it feels unfair to avoid discussion of the animation and artwork, which is also astoundingly innovative. Studio Ghibli of course have a reputation for the very high quality of the animation they produce, but one can’t help but think of their work as a touch conservative. Beautiful though it is, it often lacks the experimentation one can find in other animation studios. Only Yesterday is an exception to this in two regards- first the difference in styles between the past and the present and the seamless integration of the two, and the clever approach to speech animation.

To provide a visual clue as to the era portrayed in a particular scene, the animation style changes. Taeko’s childhood is depicted in a style similar to a manga of that period- cheerful, simplistic and less defined. Not only does this seem fitting for the time period it also emphasises that these scenes are memories. Areas that Taeko is very familiar with, such as her family home, are depicted more clearly than the places that lack any special significance, like streets in the area. Yet this is subtle, and something one only notices if paying close attention. On the other hand the present day is portrayed in a well defined and realistic manner, with an eye to portraying even the most seemingly trivial details in a true to life form.

The animation of speech in Only Yesterday reversed the typical process, and instead of attempting to match the dialogue to movement of the mouths of the characters, the voice actors recorded the speech first, and animation staff paid close attention to the mouth movements of the voice actors as they recited their lines. This means the characters facial expressions are far more representative of real human emotions than in other animated works, and are not exaggerated or comical. It is further testimony to the realism of the picture that its producers went to such great lengths to integrate these qualities into areas, even defying convention in the process.

Only Yesterday is a work of fiction, with animated characters instead of actors. Yet there is more humanity here than in most cinematic works. It is a work of such wonder and intellect, that it is impossible to escape an overwhelming sense of awe every time you retrace your steps along this magnificent journey into the countryside, and to feel the tears welling up inside when it comes to an end. It is the very essence of all that is beautiful.