“Only Yesterday” is an appropriate title for animation giant Studio Ghibli’s film, as it really is a time capsule in more ways than one. Originally released in 1991, it never found a way to American shores until now, voiced by Daisy Ridley (“Star Wars: The Force Awakens”) and Dev Patel (“Slumdog Millionaire”) as the primary characters. But it’s also a mature, low-key dramatic story about one woman’s memories of her childhood, and whether she’s truly living up to the hopeful dreams she once had.
While feeling a little outdated at times in terms of dialogue, “Only Yesterday” is perhaps the finest example of Studio Ghibli’s timelessness. What set it apart from others at the time was its focus on telling a simple, adult-oriented story for female that wasn’t about flying witches or magical princesses. It was groundbreaking then, and remains a powerful if simply-told story now. The central character is 27-year-old Taeko (Ridley), a Tokyo-native who has lived all of her life in the city, working a boring job and never finding the right man to marry. In Japanese culture the latter makes her something of a pariah, especially to her siblings. Even when she asks for time away for a vacation, her boss openly asks if it’s because she got dumped by a boyfriend.
But that time off Taeko needs is to take stock of her life and embrace the girl she used to be, and so she heads off to the Yamagata countryside to visit distant relatives. The journey begins to rekindle memories of her life as a 5th-grader, and the people and events that shaped the woman has become and doesn’t fully understand. The film is awash in Taeko’s flashbacks, with some bleeding over into her current day thoughts. What we get are essentially a pair of intersecting stories centered on young Taeko, as she experiences first love, first friendships, puberty, and more. In the present, Taeko begins to forge a lasting emotional bond with Toshio (Patel), a cousin who not only introduces her to the wonders of organic farming, but helps her sort through her inner baggage.
The film is directed by the legendary Isao Takahata, who three years earlier had helmed the classic animated film, “Grave of the Fireflies”, which I and many consider one of the greatest movies about war ever made. Takahata trades in the same powerful emotional currency to “Only Yesterday” as he did with “Grave of the Fireflies”, and that includes dealing with some of Taeko’s memories that aren’t so pleasant. It becomes clear that Taeko had always felt some kind of alienation, long before she ever grew up. Like most things, it begins with something seemingly innocent, like the mocking she receives from boys about her menstrual cycle. But that feeling of isolation grows stronger due to the influence of her parents; a father who remains distant most of the time, and a mother who has a deeper connection with Taeko’s sisters than with her.
So where’s the twist? What’s the shocking reveal that throws Taeko’s life for a loop? Well, there isn’t one. Individually, it’s probably fair to say that many of Taeko’s experiences are commonplace. But that’s pretty much the point, isn’t it? Put together as a whole, these seemingly unremarkable moments are what make Taeko the unique person she is. It may sound like it would be tedious, but there’s something profound in “Only Yesterday”‘s simplicity. If this were a live-action film we’d be talking about how they don’t make these kinds of character pieces anymore. What’s interesting is that Japanese animation continues to produce them on a regular basis now, and it should come as no surprise we have Studio Ghibli to thank for it.