As February isn’t even over yet, declaring a best film of 2016 is a ridiculous endeavor. Yet, it will be hard to imagine many works coming along better than Only Yesterday, a Japanese animated marvel that was actually made in 1991 that finally hit our shores this year.
More than a decade ago, Disney constructed a deal with the legendary Studio Ghibli to release their works, both old and new. Only Yesterday, by acclaimed director Isao Takahata (Grave of the Fireflies, The Tale of Princess Kaguya), however has fallen by the wayside due to, and this is not a joke, references to menstruation. So goes the world.
Nonetheless, Only Yesterday lives as if made today and with an innate timelessness. Miniscule in scope or stakes, this adaptation of a Hotaru Okamoto manga is about Taeko, a woman in her late 20s living life with great joy. Single, holding a job she enjoys and the freedom to take annual adventures to revel in her own peculiar interests, Taeko finds herself looking back on fifth grade life. The little decisions made between she and her siblings, parents and schoolmates that may – or may not – have made life as it stands today. The narrative flips between the two times, gracefully shifting between these lengthy flashbacks and Taeko’s current trip to the countryside where she helps pick flowers that will be crushed into rouge.
Takahata’s film is universal by way of specificity. One need not have lived in 20th century Japan, been a fifth-grade girl or youngest of three sisters to connect to Taeko, though I suspect it helps. Every scene sings of honesty. A debate between young students over the full breadth of powers a hall-monitor should have feels like spying on actual kids, with the token – though not simple – know-it-all or goofball making their presences known. It’s the kind of scenario one may have never lived through, yet lingers as if it did. This is the rare movie to treat kids as they are and not the pop-culture spouting or rancid beasts so often depicted.
Life for Taeko as an adult is equally elegant. A possible romance with a younger man steps onto the screen with care, allowing Taeko and the fellow to develop a bond through conversation. Takahata is a director that rarely insists on a theme or tone for his movies. Animated releases are, in the West, traditionally viewed as kids stuff, with the expectation that the movie will come to you. For Takahata, he lets you float over to his storytelling, as characters percolate the screen and define themselves by their actions, not via shouting. There are no villains. There are no heroes. There is a woman at a crossroads, confronting the kind of challenges that are unique to her specific place and time in life. Takahata makes her routine ours. When as a child Taeko lets her father down, it’s as if we ours. As an adult, Taeko’s tender conversations with siblings and strangers don’t appear to drive home a larger narrative point. It is part of the mood, making a viewer more than audience. We are participants. One hell of a thing to be involved in too.
Only Yesterday opens at SIFF Cinemas tomorrow.