Isao Takahata: Endless Memories
Part IV: Only Yesterday
by Dawn H.,
Part IV: Only Yesterday
After the critical and fan acclaim Studio Ghibli had garnered for their films preceding it, Only Yesterday might have seemed like an odd choice for the studio's next film adaptation. Other than Grave Of The Fireflies, their movies up until that point had become well-loved in part due to their fantasy elements - so the story of a Tokyo woman taking a vacation to a safflower farm and reminiscing about her schoolyard days didn't really sound like the type of movie fans would want to see after their previous hit, Kiki's Delivery Service. The results, however, speak for themselves - Isao Takahata and staff used their talent to craft a film that had a reserved, poignant magic of its own.
Only Yesterday (called Omohide Poro Poro in Japan, translated loosely as something along the lines of “Memories Flowing Down”) is based on a manga about the daily life of Taeko Okajima, an average 5th grade girl, often centered around interactions with her classmates or family. Hayao Miyazaki, in an interview featured in Only Yesterday's making-of supplemental material, recalled that he thought there was “great value” in telling a story with an engaging female character like Taeko, but that he just didn't have the skills to make a film with the material. “The only person that seemed to have such skills,” Miyazaki said, “was Takahata.”
Isao Takahata worked for months on ways to adapt the story into a movie, until he finally came up with the idea of showing a grown-up Taeko and using the original manga as the basis of her flashbacks. Set in the 1980s, Taeko is shown as a single 27-year old who decides to take a break from busy city life (and a mother pushing her to get married as soon as possible) to help harvest safflower at a farm owned by some of her extended family. But unexpectedly, she discovers she has a stowaway with her on this trip--in the form of her 10 year old self. The memories of her schoolgirl life creep up slowly, as idle thoughts on her train ride and pre-bedtime reflection. In the film, young Taeko is always shown in a world of slightly muted, light watercolors in contrast to the bold and vivid colors of Taeko's present. With backgrounds that are soft and almost hazy; indicating not just that these are indeed memories, but that over time, they have become faded and hard to remember as clearly. At times, both Taekos appear on screen together, their narratives intertwining to signify that even now, Taeko is still learning who she is by recalling who she has been.
Ghibli wanted Only Yesterday to feel a bit more grounded in reality - which lead to things like staff field trips to the real saffron flower farm we see in the film, and special care to make the adult characters in the film look and feel like actual adults. Takahata's idea for this was to highlight muscle movement in character's faces more realistically than in Studio Ghibli's previous films. To achieve this, Takahata had the dialog for the movie recorded first, with actors reading the script face-to-face as they recorded. This is very significant, as most anime in Japan is traditionally completed first, with the actors coming in to record the dialog of the final product to match the look and mood the director wants. These recording sessions were even filmed on VHS so that the animators could later watch them speak as they drew, using them as models for the characters they voiced. This is why the facial movements of characters look so precise, and the conversations in the original Japanese version sound a bit more natural in the way some of the characters talk. But getting the pre-recorded dialog to match up with their animation was tricky in those analog days before the help of digital technology: Only Yesterday was originally scheduled to release in late 1990, but was instead released in the Summer of 1991.
It was well worth the wait. Takahata's idea of creating the grown-up Taeko not only made her feel more relatable, but it gave Taeko's character life. We saw how her relationships with her family and friends shaped her. From her embarrassing mistakes to her small victories, to disappointing food and imperfect people....these subtle, everyday things make Taeko's life feel utterly real. Even her interactions with Toshio, the young farmer she meets and befriends while staying there, never feels forced. Their conversations and interactions flow naturally, with a charming clumsiness that builds from a fast friendship over the course of the film into something more. In the end, Taeko realizes this before it's too late - her younger self (and her entire 5th grade class!) cheers for her to hold onto that special something, that quiet comfort in another's company that she'd found, before it was gone forever. It's a truly special ending to a truly special film.
The first time I ever saw Only Yesterday was when I was a teenager, and back then I have to admit that I related much more to younger Taeko than her present-day self. But eventually, I learned that's part of what makes this film so timeless, regardless of how old it gets. As the years passed and I watched it again and again, I realized that as I grew, the movie had even more to tell me. And as I too became a grown-up, the more I understood Taeko. It's a rare thing when you see not just a young girl; but friendships, sisterhood, and womanhood portrayed so honestly in anime--or any media, period. The last time I rewatched the film, I thought about how amazing it was that Isao Takahata could somehow take a somewhat light-hearted manga and turn it into something so stirring and sincere. While Only Yesterday often gets forgotten or left out of Ghibli fan-favorites, there's no denying it had a quiet but powerful impact on a lot of people. It was the highest-grossing domestic film in Japan when it came out in 1991, and is still receiving critical acclaim around the world to this day. While Takahata may be gone, he's left us with works that hide small pieces of him within: his empathy, his love of nature, his kindness. I think Only Yesterday is one of the best examples of this, and will always hold a special place in my heart.
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