Although originally released in 1991, Isao Takahata’s “Only Yesterday” has been finally released in the United States and its reception reveals the persuasive timelessness that captivates the contemporary American audience. A film that acts like more of a cinematic treatise of humanity and philosophy, of life and love, quietly articulates a Proustian notion of memory and perception and the ability for the past to continually determine our present. As a gentle stream caressing floating weeds on a calm summer day, Takahata embraces a fragile coming-of-age story about a woman who is warped back to a pivotal moment in her childhood during a summer involving picking safflower in the Japanese countryside. Besides that, it is also about organic farming, Hungarian music, and dividing fractions. It is a cinematic conversation in which Taeko, the aforementioned woman, seeks to understand the memories that flood and captivate her mind.
Like the ebb and flow of the tide, “Only Yesterday” is structured like a rhythmic cycle of past and present, alternating between Taeko in the present who works a nine-to-five job in Tokyo but wants to venture out to the countryside for the summer as remedy for metropolitan life and Taeko when she was thirteen way back in 1966 as she grows up in her fifth grade year. Sometimes, there is no indication of when the film switches between time periods, sometimes Taeko introduces a childhood memory or reflects on it afterwards. It is as if she has experienced involuntary recall, and the film weaves both time periods, both stories into one cohesive who because both Taeko’s experience growth. Recalling the slow-moving stream, the film is mostly paced to the time signature of life, itself. In some crucial scenes the film waits, lingers, and contemplates and eventually seizes the essential heart of the moment. One of these scenes waits for the sun rise as the Hungarian folk music rings through the valley, as the golden beams of light saturated the safflower fields.
Takahata’s tone is infused with gentle amusement that appreciates the little things that may or may not illuminate any grandeur of humanity but instead actively engages with audience sympathy. When young Taeko loses herself in the excitement of trying a pineapple for the very first time, it is with such calculating movements and determined pacing that makes this scene incredibly effective. Taeko begins with marvelous curiosity and slowly, as her family members leave the dinner table in disappointment, submitting to the distasteful pineapple, Taeko remains at the table, chewing laboriously on the fruit despite her unfortunate realization. Tiny changes in her face as she chews and the length of time we are allowed to observe her face invoke a scene very seldom used in animation in roder to not linger on the oversimplification of facial expression. Takahata and his animators ignore such a risk and show us that animation has as much emotional satisfaction and empathy as a real human being.
As much as it is a reflection of the past, it is also a treatise on living in the present, and there are points where the film becomes tangential, where Toshio, local farmer of organic food, talks about how dye is extracted from the safflower and the benefits and challenges of organic farming. At points, the film is similar to the conversational drama exhibited in a film like “Before Sunrise,” which induces a feeling of calm and intellectualism that is both refreshing and intriguing. Yet, what makes this film so much better is its insistence to not ground itself in one common aesthetic trope. The naturalism of many of these scenes is peppered with surrealism plucked from an inner psychology of Taeko. Many of the her memories are animated against a subtle white background that can seen as a canvas as if the memories themselves are just paintings painted over each other with the passage of time. The most beautiful scene involves a fifth-grade crush Taeko has on this prodigy baseball pitcher. Their adorably powerful meeting again lingers with appropriate drama and what transpires is an entrance into the jovially volatile world of a young girl experiencing love for the first time in all of its vibrant colors.
And this is what this film consists of, a cornucopia of timeless thoughts and feelings. It transcends any semblance of the issue that it is animation, that it is a ‘mature’ topic rarely seen in this sort of film. Nevermind that, because the humanity that bolsters proudly from this film is unequivocally moving. In a packed house filled with curious moviegoers, one can fully understand how effortlessly “Only Yesterday,” understands human longing and the experiences all of us encounter undeterred that it was originally released in 1991. Isao Takahata is a master filmmaker, standing nobly alongside his colleague, Hayao Miyazaki, and “Only Yesterday” is his most compassionate tale on life and love.