The description ‘slice of life’ is one that often polarises opinion. For some, it is a cure for insomnia; for others, it sums up the more true-to-life approach to film making that has a charm of its own. Much of Only Yesterday falls squarely in this category – some viewers will be enthralled by its sedate drama and gentle humour while others will not be able to see the appeal at all.
Isao Takahata is known to most fans as long-term collaborator with Studio Ghibli names such as Hayao Miyazaki, as well as being the director of the harrowing WWII drama Grave of the Fireflies. Those who fell in love with his subtle and realistic style but found the tragedy of Grave of the Fireflies too much to handle can rest assured that Only Yesterday is a much lighter and more whimsical affair that devotes itself to the portrayal of the everyday.
The film jumps between the 1960s and the 1980s, as office worker Taeko Owajima takes a short holiday in the countryside and reminisces about her childhood. This makes for an experience that consists more of individual memories, told in extended flashbacks, rather than a linear storyline and in all honesty nothing of ground-breaking importance happens. It is understandable that Only Yesterday could come across as trivial or boring because of this but that would be missing the point: the film’s success hinges on the characterisation, the overwhelming sense of nostalgia and its staggering attention to detail.
Taeko is, perhaps intentionally, the picture of ‘ordinary’. Like many twenty-something professionals in the 1980s (and in the years since!) she is unsure of what direction to take in life, and spends a considerable amount of her free time daydreaming and dwelling on the what-ifs. Her ten year old incarnation is equally normal and unremarkable, which makes her so easy to relate to; the feat that Only Yesterday achieves is that, by the end of the film, we feel like we’ve known her for years. We see the adult Taeko’s generous and hard-working side, but also the misbehaving and bratty side of her when she was a child; it is an honesty of storytelling that makes her all the more endearing, and highlights how her character has changed and grown over the years.
Visually, it comes as no surprise that Only Yesterday is really quite beautiful. It goes to great lengths to portray Taeko’s rose-tinted view of the world with a strong sense of realism and could make the transition to live action with the minimum of effort. Time is often kinder to hand-drawn animation, and this fifteen-year-old effort is no exception: the watercolour backgrounds are up with Studio Ghibli’s typically high standards and a surprising depth of emotion is conveyed through the characters’ body language and expressions. The music is possibly the most understated aspect of all; sometimes the lack of it works just as well in conveying a mood of quiet contemplation.
It is also important to point out that the story is not actually resolved until after the end credits begin: if you want to fully appreciate the film’s message, makes sure you don’t miss the final scene!
Calling any Studio Ghibli film underrated is something I’d never have imagined myself doing but it is a fair judgement of Only Yesterday. It is the sort of film that understands the significance of feelings, memories and the tiniest details that make certain moments in life so special, but does so in a very subtle and understated way: ironically, its greatest strength may cause all too many viewers to pass it by. This is a real shame since it is one of the most compelling and true-to-life pieces of animated drama you are ever likely to see.