Only Yesterday

Only Yesterday (1991)
★★★★ / ★★★★

“Only Yesterday,” written and directed by Isao Takahata, is, I think, about life itself, how one chooses to live one’s life, and how it is perfectly all right to take one’s time to figure out how to live that life. It is an animated film that is beautifully written and crafted, so unwilling to sacrifice even an ounce of complexity just so the viewer can understand how a character is feeling or thinking. It is a piece of work that transcends genre. It will, or should, stand the test of time because it captures a specific human story and yet it is also about everyone.

Taeko (voiced by Miki Imai) is a twenty-seven-year-old unmarried woman in the 1980s who decides to take two weeks off from her job in Tokyo to go to a farm in Yamagata and help pick safflowers. On her way to the countryside, she cannot help but think about her ten-year-old self in 1966—the year The Beatles became popular in Japan—and the many memories that helped to shape her as a person. Like many of us when we were ten, her life was defined by school, her peers, and family.

The picture takes its time to communicate specific expressions. Unafraid to employ extended pauses so we are able to appreciate the most minute emotions and possible thoughts gracing across characters’ faces, including their body language, when silence is eventually broken and the images start moving once again, we have an understanding and an appreciation of who they are as people, including the roles they play, at that particular time. Furthermore, be aware of how negative space is employed to further highlight what the ten-year-old is going through and why certain experiences made such lasting impressions.

One of the many examples involves a memory in which fifth grader Taeko throws a tantrum because her father decides she will not be getting a new purse. On their way out the door to go to a Chinese restaurant, her father’s patience runs out when Taeko steps outside the house by accident without wearing shoes. Taeko is then slapped across the face. From the awkward dinner scene the night before when the topic of buying new things is broached to the moment when the child is struck, notice how the serene tone is slowly heated up to a boil. The conflict appears superficial, but great tension is generated by forcing us to note details of facial expressions by means of calculated pauses and long silences.

The material is not without a sense of humor. To me, having had experience teaching children a range of subjects, the funniest scene is when Taeko’s impatient elder sister, Yaeko (Yuki Minowa) is forced to tutor her on how to divide fractions. Yaeko knows how to do the math… but how to apply it in the real world escapes her. It is highly amusing, and surprising, because Taeko, as it turns out, has an understanding of the latter but not the former. It is a beautiful scene because it communicates to the viewer that even though Taeko and Yaeko do not always get along, they, in a way, complement each other—they really are sisters.

Another admirable quality is the film’s honesty. It is willing to take on subjects considered to be too risqué, especially in an animated picture, like puberty and menstruation. It effectively uses situational humor to communicate the confusion, mortification, and curiosity many girls feel at that age. I commend the writing and direction for not reducing normal bodily functions and treating them as something disgusting. Compare this approach to western coming-of-age comedies. Either the topic is avoided altogether or it is treated with revulsion or fear.

Based on the manga by Hotaru Okamoto and Yuko Tone, “Omoide poro poro” navigates through seemingly simple memories and allows us to extract the most complicated emotions, thoughts, and implications from them. Look at how it captures the terrain of being ten and learning that someone you like just might like you back, too. And I have not even gone over Adult Taeko’s experiences in the farm and the many details of harvesting and processing safflower. There are countless discoveries to be made here. It made my life that much richer.

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