It's easy to forget just how many beautifully quiet, small-scale movies Studio Ghibli has made over the years. Yes, the studio's signature movies tend to be colorful, wildly imaginative fantasy epics (Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, My Neighbor Totoro, etc.), but every now and then, they turn in an understated human drama: Whisper of the Heart, From Up on Poppy Hill, The Wind Rises, When Marnie Was There. These films are less frequently celebrated than the splashier Ghibli efforts, but no less worthy of praise: these works often attain the insightful empathy of an Ozu film.
One of the best of these “quiet” Ghibli movies is Only Yesterday, director Isao Takahata's second feature for the studio (his follow-up to the stunning Grave of the Fireflies). The film was released in Japan in 1991, but unlike most other Ghibli features, it didn't receive a U.S. release. Disney had purchased the distribution rights for the film as part of larger deal with Studio Ghibli, but they were uncomfortable with a sequence in the movie that repeatedly references menstruation (a sequence marked by candid humor and thoughtful understanding, I might add) and opted not to release it. The film didn't reach American moviegoers until 2016, sporting a new English-language dub starring actors who weren't even born when the film was made.
The film tells the story of a 27-year-old Tokyo office worker named Taeko (Daisy Ridley, Star Wars: The Force Awakens), who has decided to take an extended vacation to spend some time working on a farm owned by her brother-in-law's relatives. Yes, she'll be working hard, but getting away from the chaos of city life is its own kind of relaxation. When she arrives, she meets Toshio (Dev Patel, Slumdog Millionaire), her brother-in-law's second cousin. They hit it off right away, and over time, the two share a lot of long, thoughtful conversations about life.
Meanwhile, Taeko finds herself increasingly focused on memories from her past, as she reflects on the romances, triumphs, failures and traumas she experienced as a 10-year-old. For long stretches of time, the film takes us back to scenes from her youth, where we find her navigating difficult relationships at school, bickering with her sisters, grappling with the looming reality of puberty, discovering new interests and attempting to persuade her parents to buy her things.
The past and the present become increasingly inextricable as the film proceeds, and Takahata gracefully details the way moments from our childhood can define the rest of our lives in ways both subtle and obvious. Taeko's trip triggers one vivid memory after another, and she finds herself both yearning for the person she used to be and wondering whether she has lived up to the dreams of her younger self. Few films have so effectively explored the double-edged sword of memory, as each trip to the past is as likely to inspire heartbreak as warmth.
There's a stillness to Only Yesterday that seems unusual for an animated film, as Takahata allows long pauses between sentences and offers many moments that play at the relaxed speed of real life (just observe the lovely little scene in which young Taeko and her family try a fresh pineapple for the first time). Occasionally, the flashbacks will be drawn within a soft, half-finished frame; a clever visual way of recognizing that some memories have more clarity than others (in every case, Taeko remembers what was important to her). Additionally, the animated format allows the movie to easily slip into occasional moments of fantasy, as when a lovestruck young Taeko walks off the sidewalk and straight into the clouds. Another nice touch: later in the movie, there are scenes in which we see young Taeko timidly lurking in the background of present-day scenes featuring the adult Taeko.
Only Yesterday is slow and quiet, but never dull. You're drawn into the current of this young woman's complicated emotions, and one moment after another speaks eloquently about the way our memories work (you're likely to experience a few flashbacks of your own, even if your own childhood was vastly different from Taeko's). Have you ever had one of those moments where the contrast between the person you were and the person you've become is so overwhelming that it feels as if your heart is going to burst? If so, this is a film that will speak to you.
Rating: ★★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG
Running Time: 119 minutes
Release Year: 1991