“I didn’t intend to bring my 5th grade self along with me on this trip, but clearly she was along for the ride.”
“She was always around.”
That pause reveals more about the main character’s inner turmoil that a page of dialogue ever could. Only Yesterday is a movie about that turmoil, the turmoil of not just growing up, but of letting go. We may be through with the past but that doesn’t mean the past is through with us.
She is Taeko, a 27 year-old living in Tokyo but needing something different. Taeko heads back to the country where she picks safflowers alongside relatives. These flowers are highly sought but incredibly difficult to obtain. Their yellow petals are incased in brambly shells and must be harvest by hand. Once extracted, they are allowed to ferment, then dry, becoming the base for a very expensive rouge lipstick. It’s an intense process, one that requires care, patience and a deliberate pace.
As does the hand drawn animation style that director Isao Takahata employs. Every aspect of Only Yesterday invokes that beauty and the mystery of that intense labor. Takahata renders his characters simply, using simple expressions on spare faces to achieve a wealth of emotion. But the character design is simply the foreground, as the watercolor backgrounds not only add beauty, but a blurry, messy feeling of memory. Takahata takes full advantage of the medium, allowing past and present to overlap in magnificent and poignant ways.
Story-wise that overlap is Taeko’s arrested development, which dates back to the 5th grade. There she learned about menstruation, about the emotion a boy can give and what it means to aspire to something — in Taeko’s case, to be a performer. But life is tough for a young girl, and she can accomplish nothing without assistance from her parents. When that assistance is denied, the denial becomes a crippling moment.
And it does cripple Taeko emotionally, with the younger version of herself refusing to leave her present side, gaining strength as Takeo returns a country life. Takeo seeks refuge in the past because she believes that it will connect her more with nature, with a simpler time. But as a fellow organic farmer, Toshio, points out, what Takeo calls nature has been and continues to be manmade. What Takeo sees is a flat field, a babbling brook and a gentle stream, but the land was cleared for the patties, the river was dammed and an irrigation ditch was dug to water the crops.
Moments like this give Only Yesterday a profound sensibility, one that lingers in the mind long after watching the movie, but none of this insight, nor any of the realizations from Taeko’s backstory, impede the gentleness of the experience. This is a movie as airy and light as a summer breeze. Produced by Studio Ghibli, Takahata indulges not only in pictorial pillow shots, but brief flights of imagination, allowing the movie, and Taeko, to soar high above the dullness of the quotidian and enjoy the majesty and wonder of the world. We should all be so lucky.