Buried Treasure
Only Yesterday

by Justin Sevakis, May 21st 2009

Only Yesterday (Omohide Poro Poro)

Last Christmas, when I was back in Detroit visiting my family, my father pulled out some of our old home movies. He'd recently been digitizing our collection of slowly disintegrating VHS tapes, and having taken the time to cut a small handful of clips down to a pallatable length, wanted to share them with me. I humored him at first, but soon found myself too uncomfortable to sit through them. I had to leave the room. Later, I explained to him that I never liked that young version of myself, and found watching him unbearable.

It would surprise few of my friends to learn that I was not exactly a normal kid. I spoke like an adult, and had adult-sized ideas, but coming from a kid they sounded odd and disconnected; other kids and adults alike didn't know what to make of me. Worse yet, I was smart enough to be keenly aware of that discomfort I caused in others, but had no point of reference to even describe the problem, let alone try to solve it. I often think of the past and relive certain moments of it, but it's seldom a nostalgia trip. Rather, I'm trying to figure out myself, and in my harsher moments, attempting to discover where I went wrong.

It's little wonder, then, that I count Omohide Poro Poro (better known under its official English title, Only Yesterday) among my favorite films, anime or otherwise. I have a lot in common with Taeko, the woman haunted by the fine details of her childhood. The way she goes over them and studies them in detail, rolling around in her mind with a mixture of disappointment in herself and wonder at how things turned out the way they did, is something that cuts very close to home for me. It's impossible for me to tell if anybody else will be able to relate, or if this is purely a film for the clinically self-flagellating. But I have a feeling that I can't possibly be alone here.

Taeko is an office worker at an ad agency, working during the early 80s bubble economy in Japan. Her heart's not really into it; rather she dreams of the same thing she's dreamt of as a child: a countryside home and the quiet, farming life. This would have stayed just a dream if her older sister hadn't married into a farming family. Delighted that she now has an extended family out in the boonies, Taeko has decided to vacation there and help out with the farm. She also has made acquaintances with Toshio, the young man who stands to inherit the family farm. He's a nice guy with a big smile and an understanding disposition, not to mention a taste for eclectic music.

In the early 80s the organic farming movement was just getting started, and the concept of eco-tourism was a completely foreign one. But the family farm is, in fact, an organic farm (something Toshio cares a lot about) and Taeko's trip is most certainly eco-tourism. Immersing herself in the history and the labor of the farm, she pitches in as they harvest safflower, and is thoroughly enjoying herself. But at night, when it's quiet, she can't help but think about the past, and the unresolved memories of one particular year, when she was in sixth grade, and on the cusp of womanhood, with all the awkwardness that implies. What she's not prepared for is that someone on the farm might be able to provide her with some perspective, and that these memories might be bubbling to the surface for a reason.

Only Yesterday is possibly the least appreciated anime in the Studio Ghibli catalog, probably because it stands out so oddly among the rest of the films (not to mention anime in general). It's much more an art-house indie drama in both tone and scope. It's also frequently made fun of for its slow pace, its melodramatic title (which could be assholishly (but literally) translated as "Memories: Boo-hoo") and its use of a Japanese cover of the old Bette Midler song "The Rose." I'll admit, the film would likely bore the average younger viewer. And yet, to ignore it is to ignore one of Ghibli's most beautiful works. The lush scenery of Yamagata Prefecture is sung not only by the visuals but the eclectic soundtrack. As Taeko's musings wander from the love of farming and its history to her past, the artwork becomes faded and the backgrounds half-drawn, as if fading in from a distant memory, its fine details long lost but its essence fresh as the day it was made.

Takahata is easily one of my favorite filmmakers, and here he strikes ne'er a wrong note in this delicate film, peaceful and serene despite its lead character's hangups. Taeko never comes across as neurotic but more as simply thoughtful, and when Toshio talks her down from her quietly obsessive dark places, we don't lose patience with her. Toshio has no idea what's going on with her, but is able to reassure her, and point out the sometimes quite obvious things she's been missing. We feel as reassured as she does. Her delicate, regret-permeated mood is conveyed right from the first frames, with Masaru Hoshi's achingly beautiful piano melody and the quick flash of what was once her life.

These are not themes one is used to broaching in animated form. One might wonder why, then, Only Yesterday should be an anime at all. Why should a story like this be animated when the medium only alienates the art house crowd that might support it? I would argue that a story like this must be animated. Beyond the usual layer of abstraction provided by animation, that we might cease to wonder about actors and sets and shooting days and more fully lose ourselves in the world and its characters, the film plays with subjective realities in a way that would be perhaps impossible to pull off as well with physical people. We don't simply flash back to Taeko's past, but the past dominates her present, and begins to cross over. We see the world not as it is, but as she sees it, busy internal life and all. It might be considered a precursor to Satoshi Kon's later examinations of intermingling between fantasy and reality, particularly in Millennium Actress.

While Omohide Poro Poro was originally a manga, it has little to do with the film version. Hotaru Okamoto and Yuko Tone's 3-volume manga is simply a bunch of nostalgic anecdotal stories of 10-year-old Taeko and had little cohesive story or theme. It was Takahata's idea to use the Adult Taeko of the early 80s as an engine to drive the nostalgia into something bigger. Its maturity, its reassuring themes and concepts of memories as redemption can be ascribed purely to him.

It's a profound notion, that our past serves not to impede us but to be a driving force behind us; not a challenge to overcome but a support for the narrative of our lives. Our personal histories too often seem like traps that we must somehow escape. Takahata hints that perhaps there is a deeper purpose and a natural flow to those memories, and that they might serve an instructive, positive purpose if we'd only listen to them. It's a reassurance that I need every few years. The ending scene, as credits roll, pulls a completely unexpected visual surprise on us, and its symbolism is positively life-affirming. It forces a complete re-evaluation of the events of the film, both from Taeko's point of view and ours. Its message is simple: your past is not trying to hold you back. It may, in fact, be leading you somewhere your heart desires, should you choose to listen to it.

So, in periods of transition and doubt, I pull out my DVD and immerse myself in that idyllic countryside, that late 1960s Tokyo, and in the childhood of a fellow neurotic. And I find myself, as promised by the title, a sobbing mess. If I've gotten to the point where I've popped in this movie yet again, I'm in serious need of that little pep talk. Rare is the film that I can truly say has such a profound resonance in me, that has healed me on a soul-deep level and contributed to who I am as a person. For each of them, I am unspeakably grateful. For me, Omohide Poro Poro may be the most important one.

Obscure-O-Meter™
A Abundant. Available anywhere that carries anime.
C Common. In print, and always available online.
R1 US release out of print, still in stock most places.
R2 US release out of print, not easy to find.
R3 Import only, but it has English on it.
R4 Import only, no English version.
R5 Import only, and out of print.
R6 Import out of print and rare.
R7 Very rare. Limited import release or aired on TV with no video release.
R8 Never been on the market. Almost impossible to obtain.
Do digital fansubs exist*? YES
Adapted from Soviet-Awards.com. *at the time of writing, to the best of our knowledge.

How to get it:
Only Yesterday is the only Ghibli film Disney owns that it has done absolutely nothing to release in the West. While I don't think there's been an official comment as to why, it's pretty obvious: it's completely unmarketable to anything but an arthouse audience, it's steeped in untranslatable historic pop culture, and there's a long scene of underage nudity they're contractually forbidden from removing. As a fan of the film, even I must admit that releasing it Stateside would probably be a money-losing proposition.

That said, there's still no excuse for not owning this DVD. The Japanese edition, Korean edition and the Hong Kong edition (which is legal, for once) all contain the official Ghibli-approved subtitle track. If you have an all-region DVD player (and if you own a computer, this should not be an obstacle), you can play it. The subtitles, intended for art-house moviegoers and film festival attendees, are a bit more adapted than anime fans are used to. They're missing a few fine details, but they're nonetheless quite servicable.

If you go for the Hong Kong version (it's the cheapest), be sure to buy it someplace reputable, like YesAsia.com... just to make sure you're not getting ripped off. The official DVD is made by Intercontinental Video, and should be Region 3.


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