This is indeed a surprise – a Ghibli film that is underwhelming. However it is not necessarily a bad thing. Let me explain. When I watched the first two thirds of this film, I found it sufficiently compelling but strangely uninspiring. Dull even, something I don’t associate with Ghibli films. However the last 40 minutes turned it around for me. Undoubtedly the Ghibli magic has worked its charm again, but how? I suspect the leisurely pace of Only Yesterday is designed to hook the viewer in slowly, to get you to into Taeko’s world, to experience the change in pace from her life in Tokyo to her sojourn to the countryside.
Only Yesterday is somewhat of an unusual beast – coming-of-age stories don’t normally start at 27 and even one that does often deals with current adult conflicts, not their 10 year old past. Taeko is going on her second trip to the country, escaping from her work in Tokyo. She is at a crossroad in her life – she is ambivalent about her work, neither hating it nor loving it. She is single and having turned down a proposal not too long ago, her family is starting pressure her about her status. It is at this juncture that memories of herself as a 5th grader in 1966 come back to haunt her. It is through these witty flashbacks the audience finds out why Taeko insists on going to the country to work on a farm when all her colleagues prefers to jet overseas.
All this is well and good but it is the visual style of Only Yesterday that I had most problem adjusting to. For want of a better word, Takahata has given a somewhat visual realism treatment to Only Yesterday. The characters, at least the adults, have facial muscles and distinctive teeth. Additionally the narrative is also rather conventionally realistic with few surprises or plot devices, relaying between present day and flashbacks to 1966. Filmmakers who make animated films often take full advantage of the medium and do things that live-action is unable to replicate, which begs the question why this was an animated film. Takahata could have made Only Yesterday as a live action film and Taeko’s story wouldn’t have been worse off. Upon deeper thinking, if Takahata has resorted to using a stylised look, perhaps words like ‘whimsical’ and ‘nostalgic’ would have been thrown at it clearly detracting from the drama and psychology of the story.
Upon even deeper inspection it feels as if Takahata is trying to challenge this conventional assumption and proclaim that an animated film can still be entertaining even if it’s portraying its story realistically with no animated flights of fancy. Certainly I myself was surprise at my change of emotion by the end of the movie, once I had to come to accept the film, I was drawn into Taeko’s journey. Those of you who enjoy quiet surprises in your cinema viewing will no doubt find something to enjoy from this Takahata offering, and it deserves a spot in your Ghibli collection.