Though it was originally released 25 years ago, Isao Takahata’s “Only Yesterday” could have been made, well, only yesterday. Based on the manga by Hotaru Okamoto and Yuko Tone, “Only Yesterday” became a surprise Japanese box office hit, but has only recently made its way to North American screens. Fortunately, the film’s bittersweet exploration of one woman finding her place in the world— a universally appealing story aided by the lush animation of the famed Studio Ghibli— has gracefully withstood the test of time.
Taeko (voiced by “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” actress Daisy Ridley in the English-language version) is 27, unmarried, and living in Tokyo. From a phone conversation with her sister early on in the film, we learn that Taeko is free-spirited and independent. Her character immediately shines, shying away from the hackneyed “bitter office drone” prototype and instead embracing refreshing self-awareness as a young woman who simply yearns for something more. Taeko exudes excitement when discussing her unorthodox idea of a vacation: harvesting in the countryside. Her sister is baffled, but Taeko is immediately understood by Toshio (“Slumdog Millionaire”’s Dev Patel), who collects her from the train station and enthuses right along with her.
This opening is interspersed with the film’s first flashback to fifth-grade Taeko (voiced by Alison Hernandez), as her school friends boast of their upcoming summer vacations to the countryside. Taeko’s family’s trip is less glamorous to her fifth grade mind, but she makes the most of the alternate plans and demonstrates a delighted enthusiasm that immediately endears her to the audience. Yet despite her bohemian temperament, it becomes clear that Taeko is still, in many ways, beholden to her past. “I didn’t intend to bring my fifth grade self on this trip,” 27-year-old Taeko muses on the train from Tokyo. “But she was always around.”
Taeko’s fifth-grade life is more engaging and vibrant than her present-day story, and the film lags a bit during her languid, repetitive days in the safflower fields. But perhaps that’s part of the point. Fifth-grade Taeko is an underdog, the misfit of her family and the “goody two-shoes” of her class. The youngest of three daughters, she struggles to relate to her older sisters, who were, like normal teen girls in the ‘60s, fully consumed with notions fashion and a global Beatles obsession. Taeko navigates the wonders and pitfalls of adolescence, from her first crush, to sex ed, to hall monitor politics. Older Taeko, all bubbly optimism, seems to have her life all figured out.
But “Only Yesterday” is a more delicate film than that. Taeko’s reminiscences are no mere nostalgia trip; her past informs and shapes her present— indeed, her entire worldview— in more subtle ways. She recalls failing a math test and trying to learn from her mistakes with her impatient sister, Yaeko (Ashley Eckstein): Taeko draws a picture to explain her sophisticated thought process, but a bemused Yaeko waves her away and instead simply rattles off the mathematical laws. Soon after, the girls’ stern mother expresses the underlying sentiment felt throughout the film: Taeko is not a normal kid.
It is worth noting— and praising— Takahata’s pitch-perfect portrayal of little girls and young women across all cultures. From fifth-grade Taeko’s embarrassment about periods to her older self’s ambivalence towards marriage, the overall character feels startlingly real. Studio Ghibli is known for producing well-crafted female protagonists, and Takahata’s fellow Ghibli director, Hayao Miyazaki, has been particularly outspoken about this initative, calling his leads “brave, self-sufficient girls that don’t think twice about fighting for what they believe in with all their heart.” Taeko is a worthy addition to these ranks.
But “Only Yesterday” is also very different from other Ghibli films, foregoing the fantastical for a more understated tale reflected in its pastel-colored minimalism. Animation is an industry growing at an exponential rate, but at nearly three decades old, the film’s luscious, watercolor landscapes feed into the romantic, nostalgic tone perfectly. Even the drawn-out slicing of a pineapple is effective— I could actually feel my stomach rumbling.
“Only Yesterday” traces an unusual young woman’s identity over time, and true to the complexity of this journey, it’s difficult to judge whether the ending is a victory for Taeko or a defeat. (Speaking of the ending, make sure you stay through the credits, or you’ll miss it.) It’s a slow process at times, but the soft beauty of the animation more than makes up for the plot’s meandering, and the nostalgia of childhood coats the film like the rosy rouge of the safflower. In a voiceover, Taeko wonders at the vividness of her fifth-grade memories, noting that the remembrances played “like a movie in my head.” Audiences will walk out of “Only Yesterday” feeling the exact same way.