Only Yesterday is playing select Alamo Drafthouses this week. Get your tickets here!
Isao Takahata’s Only Yesterday (Omoide Poro Poro) plays like a leisurely melody of nostalgia. Through a double-layered coming-of-age story of a woman and a girl, Takahata transforms the deceptively trivial instances in childhood into a tribulation for an adult, still tentative about her station in life.
Only Yesterday follows the mundane and momentous beats of everyday life, not unlike Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, except it adheres to the present-to-past non-linear trope. Though its foreign contents, such as a bathhouse scene and explicit discussion of menstruation deemed un-viewable for an American mainstream audience, delayed its U.S. distribution for over two decades, it finally received U.S. theatrical release with Daisy Ridley and Dev Patel as the dub leads in 2016. But despite being shelved from American eyes, its substance has not acquired dust and it bestows a special resonance for its adult audience.
Takeo is an unmarried office-woman in her late 20s—although the animation’s commitment to realistic stretches in her facial expression can offer the illusion that she’s pushing 40—who seems well-settled in the normalcy of her city life. As Takeo heads toward a temporary escape from the humdrum workplace to the countryside, a sporadic succession of fifth grade reminiscences accompanies her in anecdotal fragments. We—as well as the Older Takeo—get to know the Young Takeo. Why would her fifth grade self suddenly surface like a ghost?
It’s noteworthy that the manga source material starred only the childhood of Young Takeo and Takahata constructed Older Takeo’s adulthood sequences to weave a cinematic story thread. The movie’s maneuver from present to flashback is executed with intuition, sometimes disconnected, yet tactful like a puzzle coming together. Some episodes may appear trifling, until viewings later. There is a strong motif involving expectations about big and miniscule things, being met, being letdown, whether Takeo possesses them or someone else does for her.
The stories of the two Takeos rotate around ordinary realism and a fantasy-tinted realism. Eschewing traditional animation practices, for the present sequences, the voices were recorded first and the animation was framed around the timing of the recordings. Only the flashbacks, bearing more traditional anime style, adhered to the tradition of “animation first, voice recording later.” Although Only Yesterday is anchored to a realism easily replicated in the live-action medium, Takahata exploits animation to convey a woman’s world drawn out for her and a little girl’s world not so fully rendered. Takeo’s flashbacks commence in stark mundaneness. The softness of the negative space casts its childlike spell, tinted in a mild haze to illuminate a child’s budding scope of the world with intermittent pops of imaginary cartoony inventiveness, such as when Young Takeo takes flight into a cloudy romantic backdrop after trading words with her first crush.
Through Takeo’s meditation of her own budding femininity and the surrounding expectations, Takahata crafts a critical lens into Japanese social mores, which would permeate the atmospheric storytelling in his swan song The Tale of Princess Kaguya. Although Takeo is an abiding Japanese everywoman, she vocally or internally contemplates the customs of her familial and social sphere, many times halfheartedly conforming. Western viewers will lift brows at the austerity of on-screen value dissonance of Takeo’s family life, such as the scene where Young Takeo is slapped for wearing socks outside and the moment where her sister accuses her of being mentally deficient for poor fraction grades. The unresolved nature of these incidents haunts the Older Takeo, who is coming to terms with her independence.
True to the bittersweet what-could-have-beens in everyone’s life, Takahata takes care to leave enigmatic mysteries. Takeo wonders why her father slapped her once but never again. We also never learn why her father forbids Takeo, other than a terse “show people are no good,” from accepting a talent agent’s offer. Older Takeo no longer mourns as much for this missed opportunity, but confesses, “I guess I wasn’t as over it as I thought I was.” She alludes to attempting to compensate for her loss, having fun in high school drama club, but surmising she could never be a star. Ultimately, the Young Takeo’s reluctant but deferential compliance to conformity partially informs the Older Takeo’s played-safe status. Older Takeo considers herself blithely content with her current station in life. But is she really content? Or did she condition herself to become comfortable with a riskless life? Until the final twenty minutes of the film, Takeo never broaches major turning points in her life, although her crucial missed turning points in childhood begin to take precedence. Although Takahata employs limited crescendos in the pacing, there is a low-key surge in tension when Taeko confronts a dilemma: a commitment to an attractive but not glamorous new life or a humdrum but livable routine.
In the final shots, although Takeo surrenders to the resolved and unresolved irreversibility of all her decisions, or the decisions made for her, she doesn’t forfeit the possibilities of the future. The ghost of her fifth grade self isn’t haunting her as much as escorting her to her desired direction.