Only Yesterday – The Subtle Strokes of Isao Takahata

The moment Ghibli surprised me with more than what I expected was this one film, finally released officially over in North America in 2016. Only Yesterday or Omoide Poporo, is truly a divisive film among many fans of Ghibli. It does not have the grand strokes of some of the studio’s more well-known works like Spirited Away or Princess Mononoke. Much like most of director Isao Takahata’s works in Studio Ghibli, Only Yesterday is a more introspective and realistic film based in the mundanity of a 27 year old’s reflecting over a younger time. The grand strokes are replaced with fine pen as the film feels like one of the more underwatched works by just looking at the cover of the DVD or Blu-ray box. I mean why watch something like this comparatively to the majestic wonderment one could find in Spirited Away or Nausicaa? That was my initial thoughts when buying it, but over the course of the film I felt something changing. Did it help to reinforce what Tales from Earthsea had proven to me recently or did Takahata help bring me back to what I believed about Studio Ghibli, that they are the masters of animation?

Only Yesterday 1

Isao Takahata is a name Studio Ghibli fans should know well, being one of the two masters of animation in Studio Ghibli. Director of classics, old and modern, like Princess Kaguya and Grave of the Fireflies there is always a different atmosphere to his films comparatively to Miyazaki. His worlds aren’t fantastical, but his style always gives the realism he strives for life through animation. Grave of the Fireflies is a testament to that, being one of the first films that put Studio Ghibli on the map. Only yesterday seems to follow that same trend with a distinct animation style that is a tad bit unheard of. He recorded the voice actors first and animated around the vocal tracks focusing on more realistic facial features. When characters talk, primarily the older ones, you can see the cheek muscles at work and easily put together how painstaking that must have been to make it feel distinctly like the character is talking. There is a deep respect for this style of animation from me since you know it was unique and took a lot of effort to do well.

Not only do the humans look remarkable, his backgrounds have that painterly feel to them. One could take a picture of this mundane countryside Studio Ghibli has animated and make a beautiful picture from it. Takahata’s style to me is subtle, paying more attention to the little feats of smooth animation comparatively to the grander strokes of Miyazaki’s fantastical adventures. When a car is driving away he will make damned sure that the puddle it runs over that is not even centered in the shot is animated  extremely well showcasing all the ripples when not much on screen is animated. The cutting of a pineapple shows the finesse of these subtle strokes more up front, as you can see every stroke of the knife peeling off the core and skin. This type of beauty to me is what makes Takahata’s work so relatable by a visual aspect, because he takes time for those little moments to be silent showstoppers. Miyazaki similarly does this, but because of his tour de force artwork it is harder to notice. Yet of course it is still there and Only Yesterday proves once again why these two are some of the best in the business.

Only Yesterday 3

Enough gushing about Takahata’s animation, Only Yesterday also has a story attached to it. Taeko is a 27 year old whose life has hit a point of wondering what she wants from life. Returning to a farming village to pick safflower for her vacation (yeah I didn’t get it at first) she is trying to get a grasp on who she is as a person, but this time she brought her fifth grade self this trip. Taeko’s vacation is all about self-introspective and figuring out the aimless days of her youth compared to the present. Trying to figure out the meaning behind a kid not shaking her hand as he left, coming to terms with her mixed family life and trying to understand why she is odd. All the while she meets Toshio, a local farmer who becomes infatuated with her and is passionate about organic farming. His passion meets her indecisiveness and the clash gives her a new lease on life that is kind of magnetic to watch.

Watching her younger days and seeing who she is in the present, reflects her growth after all of those years but one can see the chains that hold her back. The shift between childhood and adulthood is impressive especially in some of the transitions. The stories of childhood range from childish nonsense, boyish teasing about girls on their periods (yeah weird topic but I can see it potentially happening), to even moments of family cruelty towards her and her trying to deal with the crap life gives her. There is such a range of stories, and each tale she relates back to herself in the present and helps the daughter of the family she is staying with get past her own hang-ups of growing up. The past doesn’t feel intrusive to the story, and instead seems to highlight aspects of what makes her afraid and indecisive now. She needs to deal with these problems in order to come to terms with how she wants her life to be.

Only Yesterday 4

Her family is one that showcases a sense of complexity and traditional values. Each sister grew up in the time differently because of their respective ages. The short little passages we get to see gives us a brief look into why Taeko is who she is and the hindrances in her life and how she deals with things. Each of her problems come from a moment with this family feeling like an outsider among them. It depicts a family quite well with the highs and the lows, with the lows coming as harsh reminders of the traditional mindset. It truly creates a beautiful outline for who Taeko is, and a relatable one at that. The same can be said about the family she vacations with in the present. Each reflecting elements of the past, and help her to piece together her hang-ups of the past. The farmers are hard-working and simple folk, one’s who smile a lot and show a kindness to her not normally expressed in her family. These two familial settings offer Taeko different views on family, and while it may not show often both affect her in different ways.

The art helps to differentiate the timelines. Often the past is coloured in slightly, with some surreal moments of her childish imagination taking flight and even those hints of classic shoujo eyes now and again. The more expressive features seem to come alive more in the present along with a full sense of colour when looking at the backgrounds, and her ponderings on life gone by can have some absolutely beautiful imagery without making it feel like it is just spouting poetic nonsense. Everything has a place in the film and every moment is taken into consideration greatly even if at times it does feel aimless. The long diatribes on the agricultural sectors problems and organic farming can be a bit tedious at times yet it only reflects the characters shown and the passion of these people who thrive in the farming life. The hard work is showcased fully, giving one a respect for the process of farmers. Yet it can wane on the patience from time to time, same with some of the more aimless stories of the youth no matter how much they may tie into the character. There feels like a lot to delve through in this film and at times it can feel like it is indulging itself on its own philosophies due to its almost two hour runtime.

Only Yesterday 2

That being said, I won’t deny that this movie captured my heart well into the end of it. Teaching not only Taeko about the value of life, but us about the same core values. We can think back to a time in our past that will never seem to leave us, almost as if our younger self hangs onto our clothes much like Taeko. Sometimes our younger self can help us understand who we are today, and I feel as if Only Yesterday does that marvelously. Takahata does the almost perfect balancing act with this film and I for one might even consider this my favourite Ghibli movie so far. This might not even be a one watch type of movie as I am sure there are many more interesting tidbits of information to be gathered from the film. Sometimes simple but effective strokes can bring about the same emotion as grander ones, proving that Takahata is just as important as Miyazaki in the history of Studio Ghibli.

Rating: A

Unfortunately the stars didn’t align for me to finish this review in time for yesterday, which is frankly ironic knowing the title. So I will be posting two posts in one day during this week to make up for it. Hoping that will be today, but I need to get to binging more of them. Thankfully I have been revived by Only Yesterday and it helped me watch a few others today. Princess Mononoke will be the next one up on the Tour de Ghibli.

So have you watched Only Yesterday? Do you like Isao Takahata’s work as a director? Feel free to leave a comment down below and don’t forget to have yourself a fantastic day!


2 thoughts on “Only Yesterday – The Subtle Strokes of Isao Takahata

  1. I have not watched this film (frankly if I am being quite honest I had not even heard of this movie), but wow does it look amazing. I love the subtle animation style you describe, and the pictures really do support it. The story also sounds quite amazing as well. Will try to track this one down for sure. Always nice to discover movies that I have not heard from but are pretty much hidden gems 😊 As for the posts, there really is no need to rush things. Just take your time, I’m sure they will be worth the wait 😀

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Well with Ghibli movies it is hard to rush the posts since most times there is so much to talk about that the posts grow far too big. I would definitely recommend this Ghibli film for a watch at the very least. I hope you do enjoy it when you watch it and I also hadn’t really heard much about the film prior to 2016. I am glad critics have finally given it its due and I hope it grows in following over the years.


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