by John Duncan Talbird.
At the midpoint of Isao Takahata’s animated Only Yesterday (1991) narrator-protagonist Taeko gives us a lesson on the making of rouge: on the picking of the safflower, on its pounding to mush, on its drying in the sun in little discs. She tells us of the historical significance of the plant, how it tied country to city, peasants creating makeup for city women. It’s a didactic moment in an impressionistically slow-moving narrative and, if it had come earlier, it might have been boring. However, by this point in the story, we’re invested in Taeko as a character, we want to know what she knows, and, consequently, we want to learn about this seemingly provincial and mundane work which, we come to learn, is telling a very modern story about the displacement of manual labor in a mechanized society, about our disconnect between the land and our lack of sentimentality about nature.
That word sentimental is apt in discussing this film. The movie tiptoes around the periphery of the sentimental, rarely moving into mawkishness. Part of the success of this tight-wire act is due, I suspect, to the simplicity of the narrative. Early on in the film, an uninterrupted four minutes are dedicated to the family’s quest to figure out how to eat a pineapple. Ultimately, the eldest sister decides that pineapple in the can tastes better, the father says that it’s “nothing to rave about.” Taeko eats not only her slice, but her two sisters’, valiantly chewing until it’s all gone. We watch her choke down the (probably) unripe fruit as her family members also watch her. During this scene, I marveled at how much I enjoyed it even though so “little” was going on, as is really the case for much of the film. It’s hard not to compare it in my mind to other animated features like the often-brilliant-yet-frenetic Pixar films like Inside Out (2015) or Wall-E (2008). It was only after the film was over that I realized how much this quiet scene matters to the theme of the film, showing that this Tokyo family, like most urban families, has become disengaged from nature. There are many moments like this – Taeko’s jealousy that her friends are going “to the country” for summer vacation, her clueless elementary school’s sex education program (the girls are lectured about menstruation in the gym while the boys play baseball) – that seem like discrete if amusing anecdotes, but they build one on top of the other, creating a subtle effect over the course of the film’s two hour run-time.
In honor of its twenty-fifth anniversary, Studio Ghibli and GKids Films has released Only Yesterday for a theater run in two versions, subtitled and dubbed. (I saw the dubbed version and though the mix of American and British accents coming out of Japanese mouths is distracting at first, I became invested in the story and quickly forgot this oddity.) Adapted from the manga series of the same title, the film shifts between two times, the present life of twenty-seven-year-old Taeko and her fifth-grade year in elementary school. It’s a simple story, Taeko heading to the country to work on a farm, laboring as a vacation from her city office job. As she prepares to go, as she travels to this little organic farm, as she works long hours, and also relaxes, and begins to fall in love, she continually shifts back in time to her fifth grade year. The transitions are delightful, the fifth grade version of her sticking her head out from between two seats or walking into the frame and transforming it to an earlier time.
The film is lovely to look at, especially the scenes on the farm. The detail – water dripping from safflower branches, a dyed handkerchief turning from red to pink in a river – are exquisitely and deceptively simple. Many long shots of the horizon are rendered as if water colored, harkening back to seventeenth-century Japanese painting, in sharp contrast to the mechanized hard manga lines of the office building Taeko works in or the train she travels on. Again, this is all achieved with a subtlety that comes upon one gradually.
Subtlety is not generally a mainstay in animated films, nor is realism. An adult romance or a coming of age narrative, both qualities that this film has, are generally narratives we expect to get from live-action dramatic films, not cartoons. In fact, I’ve generally felt that the main appeals of animated films were absurdity, the fantastic, bright colors and weird imagery not found in nature. I remember arguing to friends back in graduate school in the late nineties the appeals of The Simpsons (1989 to the present) or South Park (1997 to the present) versus the contemporaneous and, to my mind, far inferior King of the Hill (1997-2010). Why would anyone make an animated series, I felt, that could just as easily be acted out by real actors on location? Although it’s true that in these days of CGI and green screens and actors in body stockings performing characters who only appear in postproduction it’s possible to film either of those former titles with real actors. Again, though, why would anyone want to? (I address this to the suits sitting around conference tables figuring out how to do so at this very moment.)
Only Yesterday, despite its trappings of realism, doesn’t violate my earlier assumptions about what animated film should offer its viewers. Early on in the narrative, a boy chases Taeko home. They stand staring at each other for a long time, longer than is comfortable or usual for either animated or live-action film (this film employs silences as long, sometimes, as a Jim Jarmusch movie). After a little awkward, pubescent dialogue, the boy runs off smiling. They’ve made a connection. Taeko watches him run and then runs in the opposite direction, running into the sky and then flying. Because of simple moments of magic within all the realism, we’re not surprised when Taeko’s younger self appears and wordlessly appeals to the older version in the last minutes of the film. These last minutes – taking place without dialogue, credits appearing on the screen – are devastating and beautiful, and I suspect that many viewers will have trouble watching with dry eyes.
Only Yesterday has been rereleased in US theaters by GKids Films.
John Duncan Talbird is the author of the limited edition book of stories, A Modicum of Mankind (Norte Maar) with images by artist Leslie Kerby. His fiction and essays have recently appeared or are forthcoming in Ploughshares, Juked, The Literary Review, Amoskeag, REAL and elsewhere. An English professor at Queensborough Community College, he lives with his wife in Brooklyn.