(JAPAN 1991 118 min)
Director / Writer Isao Takahata
by Stephen Russell-Gebbett
Isao Takahata is less well known than his Studio Ghibli colleague Hayao Miyazaki. People may know his film about a pair of children orphaned by war, Grave of the Fireflies, but might not be able to put a name to it; let alone a face to the name. He is less well known but, some would say, no less talented.
Only Yesterday is about Taeko; that is Taeko at 27 and Taeko at 10. On her way to the countryside to help pick Safflowers, she recalls, through flashbacks, her younger self. She wonders if the woman she has become is someone the young Taeko would be proud of. The literal translation of the Japanese title Omohide Poro Poro is “memories come tumbling down”.
To distinguish between the past and the present, Takahata fades the edges of the image of the past, unfinished and indistinct in retrospect, and draws with softer lines the safer and more welcoming world of a child. The present is depicted in sharp lines, the past as if in watercolour (Takahata used a watercolour wash, digitally created, in My Neighbours the Yamadas).
Taeko’s life now appears, in some respects, directionless. She takes joy from life when it comes but does not know where to go to get it for herself. The life of young Taeko is all about firsts: her first taste of pineapple (it’s bitter), her first taste of love (it’s sweet) and her first period. These are the awkward trials that all young people both relish and struggle through. Taeko in the present day has no more trials, no more hurdles that the trip into adulthood puts in your way. Those are the hurdles that make you grow and strive harder or fly skyward with love’s first blush. Taeko is grounded.
Takahata’s oeuvre has more of an adult’s perspective than Miyazaki. Childhood fantasy is further in the background whilst the fantastic challenges of real life move into the foreground. His colours are more muted. The emotional palette is perhaps less intense. It is definitely wider. That is not to say that he cannot make great mischief, from the bizarre shape-shifting raccoons of Pom Poko to the light family farce of My Neighbours the Yamadas, to the somehow likeable spoilt brat antics of Jarinko Chie. Nevertheless the frivolity is infused with a realism tilting towards, but not falling into, the cynical.
There are parts of Only Yesterday where Takahata (adapting from the manga by Hotaru Okamoto and Yuko Tone) takes stock with his character and retreats from constantly energising her story. A long section is devoted to explaining and showing the process of gathering up the flowers. What animation would feel like a light-hearted school soap opera one moment and a documentary another? You can understand it when he says he is influenced by both The French New Wave and Italian Neorealism. What animation would devote almost a minute to the sun rising over the hills as the women work (top)?
At first this interlude in the fields seems to be a stop-over. Naively we think that if the protagonist does not move, then the story will not. Yet it is not an interlude. It has a two-fold purpose. Firstly, the flowers and their careful, assiduous cultivation from seedling to full bloom are a metaphor for the growth of our heroine (I say heroine not because she battles evil or changes the world for the better but because she is a likeable, positive presence whom we care and root for). Secondly, the later scenes bring about a dawning in us and in her that the flower of maturity may not bloom forever but that its beauty should be enjoyed for as long as possible.
In other words, growing up may be exciting but the benefit of being grown up is reaping the rewards of childhood in full.