Isao Takahata’s second Studio Ghibli film, coming after the masterful “Grave of the Fireflies”, “Only Yesterday” is interesting in covering territory outside the general remit of animation, even in Japan (that of a realistic, memory-laden drama covering a relatively “uneventful” middle-aged woman), yet being greatly critically and commercially successful. The film struck a chord, and small wonder, given how utterly fantastic it is. The film burns with soul, creativity, earnestness, firing on all cylinders in its stunning coverage of an adult woman reflecting on her youth and her current life, and grappling with how that affects her sense of self and what she is happy with in life.
There are countless masterful touches in the film that keep elevating it higher and higher beyond its already wonderful baseline of a brilliant, thoughtful script. The dialogue being recorded before the film was animated, a reversal of the usual process that enabled the seminal, unparallelled realism of the animation of faces drawn specifically to the script, transcending the common knowledge of what the medium could achieve in terms of visualising emotional specificity. The way the flashback childhood sequences aren’t shaded in the outer edges, a visual representation of the formlessness of memory, the way memories trail off and remain permanently (and increasingly) incomplete. The uncharacteristic usage of Bulgarian folk choirs, signifying the protagonist’s distinction and separation with the rest of the settings and characters she encounters. The spellbinding sequence of the protagonist flying after feeling the first pangs of being in love, then seamlessly sinking back into the reality of bed. The protagonist in adulthood squirming with delight, drunk on the giddiness of pleasant childhood memories. The sentiment of someone feeling as if “they were part of my old past” so exquisitely capturing the feeling of genuine love.
The humanism here is executed with such magnificence and skill. Nostalgia isn’t deployed here as cheap sentiment or an easy way of contorting backstory into a narrative (indeed, plot here is minimal, as Takahata was far more interested in character), instead it’s used as the protagonist struggles with how to reckon her identity, sense of self, and what she actually wants out of life, with how she felt on those matters when younger. What would her childhood self think of her? What decisions would she make? How, precisely, did she change? So much is tied up in the foggy memories of what at times can feel like a different person, and at others feel like the self identically, only writ smaller. That struggle of reckoning the present self with the past isn’t mapped onto any conventional narrative arcs or character development so much as portrayed tirelessly realistically, and is all the more powerful for it.
What a brilliant film. Five pineapples and a purse.