twenty-seven, Taeko Okajima ought to be too young for a midlife crisis, but she
carries a lot of baggage from her difficult childhood. However, she might
finally start to work through her issues when she lugs her “fifth grade self”
along on her vacation to the countryside. Although it was a Japanese box office
hit in 1991, Isao Takahata’s animated memory play remained the one Studio
Ghibli film that was never theatrically distributed in North American. Fortunately,
GKIDS has rectified this frustrating situation with a proper release of
Takahata’s straight-up masterpiece Only
continues it special two-week, twenty-fifth anniversary release in New York, at
the IFC Center.
desire to vacation in the country can be immediately attributed to the
frustrations of her childhood. As she boards the train taking her out of Tokyo,
she remembers with bitterness being the only member of her fifth grade class
who did not have a country getaway lined-up for summer break. Her parents
seemed to have two specialties, berating her for her low marks in mathematics
and dashing her dreams. However, young Okajima is not the perfect picture of
innocence either. In fact, the memories that will be most difficult to work
through involve her guilt for mistreating less popular classmates.
contrast, her time spent with her bother-in-law’s rugged country relations is
quite pleasant for Okajima. She genuinely enjoys harvesting the safflowers, a
blooming thistle whose pigments are used for cosmetics and dyes. She and Toshio
(the second cousin of her sister’s husband) hit it off particularly well. There
could even be something more than friendship between them, but it is not clear Okajima’s
head is ready for it.
do not see very many films, live action or animated, that are as emotionally
complex as Only Yesterday. While the
1966 flashbacks were based on a successful manga, Takahata developed the
original 1980s wrap-arounds, which really take on a life of their own. In fact,
seeing the psychological ripple effects years later make the childhood
sequences far richer. Consequently, when Takahata delivers the massive payoff,
it happens in the eighties.
course, Only Yesterday looks
absolutely gorgeous. Studio Ghibli’s affinity for safflower fields hardly needs
explaining for their fans. The figures are also rendered with unusual
sensitivity, particularly 1980s Taeko and Toshio. If you do not quickly take a
shine to them, you must be one grumpy old goat. Yet, what really stands out in
the film is Takahata’s confident patience to let dialogue fully play out. Early
in the film, Toshio and Okajima have a long conversation while he drives her to
the farm from the station. It deceptively sounds like small talk, but it really
establishes both their characters, as well as the film’s major themes. Frankly,
they are just worth listening to.
the English dub, GKIDS scored a bit of a coup with the casting of Daisy Ridley,
currently seen in something called The
Force Awakes, as the voice of twenty-seven year old Okajima. However,
Japanese pop singer Miki Imai is so perfect in the role, it is still worth
opting for the subtitled original version (which the IFC Center is also running
for the film’s screenings after 8:00 pm).
Some animation fans consider Only Yesterday a watershed for its
mature and realistic portrayal of a woman in adulthood. That may well be so,
but it is such a human and humane film, just about everyone ought to be able to
relate to it. A wonderful example of studio Ghibli’s artistry, Only Yesterday continues its special,
worth-the-wait engagement at the IFC Center, with a national release later scheduled
for February 26th.
Labels: Animated films, Isao Takahata, Japanese Cinema, Studio Ghibli