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Review

by Justin Sevakis,

Only Yesterday

Synopsis:
Only Yesterday (Dub)

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 has also made an acquaintance 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 thoroughly enjoys 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, 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.

Review:

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 Japanese title (which could be accurately -- but ridiculously -- 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 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 he's 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 flashes of what was once her life.

These are not themes we're used to broaching in animated form, which might make you wonder why 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, with 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 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 these films, I am unspeakably grateful. For me, Omohide Poro Poro may be the most important one.

Much has been made of the film's new English dub, as it features newly crowned Jedi and fan favorite Daisy Ridley as adult Taeko. Ridley is easily the best part of the English version. She has a warmth to her that suits Taeko well, but more importantly, she allows Taeko's insecurities and uneasiness with herself to be an essential part of the character without making her weak or robbing her of her agency. Child actor Alison Fernandez voices 5th grade Taeko, and is also quite strong in her performance, although that role is obviously nowhere near as meaty as Ridley's. A mix of other kids and adult women (including a few familiar names) round out the younger half of the cast.

Unfortunately, the rest of the dub comes nowhere close to Ridley's level of skill -- either in front of or behind the microphone. Dev Patel is a little flat and bored-sounding as Toshio, but the biggest problem is the fact that he speaks with a thick Londoner accent -- and absolutely no one else, including Toshio's immediate family, speaks in anything but standard American English. It's distracting and really takes you out of the film. Other issues are harder to put a finger on. Takahata's original voice direction had some very subtle, nuanced touches: 1966 sounds far more like "normal anime," with its heightened reality and bold emotions, than 1982 does. If you look away from the screen, conversations between adult Taeko and Toshio, and indeed everybody from those segments, sound indistinguishable from a well-made live action drama. It's an extremely naturalistic sound that heightens the contrast between the two eras and allows a lot of the nuance in the characters to take root. The film cannot bloom fully without such delicate performances.

And while the dub has some fine work -- a telephone call between Taeko and her older sister earlier in the film stands out as particularly well done -- most of the nuance simply didn't make it through unscathed. ADR Director Jamie Simone (Naruto, Tiger & Bunny, When Marnie Was There) simply wasn't able to recapture that level of naturalism in the sterility of a one-person recording booth. There is almost no audible distinction between the two time periods in the English version. The dub is well-made, and the screenplay adaptation by David Freedman is downright fantastic in parts, but as with Takahata's Grave of the Fireflies, a good English dub is simply not subtle enough to get the point across. The naturalism of his voice direction is lost. Diction is too clean and perfect, performances lack depth, and it's harder to fully emotionally invest in the world of the film.

In the end, attempting to adapt a work like this into English is a bit of a fool's errand. It's so steeped in its time and place -- both somewhat foreign to English speakers -- that even the smallest touches end up taking away from the film. Even translating the opening credits, which originally laid vertical text across a burlap background, can no longer evoke similar openings to the films of Yasujiro Ozu if they're presented in English. I'm not sure we could've ever expected an English dub to live up to the performances of the original film, but as Only Yesterday is more of an art house drama than an anime as we normally think of it, watching it dubbed feels akin to watching a dub of a foreign live action film: just unnatural enough to sink into that uncanny valley.

That said, Only Yesterday is perhaps the best-made film in the entire Ghibli canon, and that is saying a lot. It's the work of an assured, incredible array of talent. Its availability in North America, even some 25 years after it was produced, is something to cheer about.

Grade:
Overall (dub) : B+
Overall (sub) : A+
Story : A
Animation : A+
Art : A+
Music : A+

+ Perhaps the most well-crafted, subtle and moving film ever animated.
The dub is not spectacular. Slow moving, non-traditional storytelling is not for everyone.

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Production Info:
Director: Isao Takahata
Screenplay: Isao Takahata
Storyboard: Yoshiyuki Momose
Music: Masaru Hoshi
Original Manga:
Hotaru Okamoto
Yuuko Tone
Character Design: Yoshifumi Kondō
Animation Director:
Katsuya Kondo
Yoshifumi Kondō
Yoshiharu Satō
Director of Photography: Hisao Shiraishi
Executive producer: Hayao Miyazaki
Producer:
Toru Hara
Toshio Suzuki

Full encyclopedia details about
Only Yesterday (movie)

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