It’s 1982, and Taeko is 27 years old, unmarried, and has lived her whole life in Tokyo. She decides to visit her family in the countryside, and as the train travels through the night, memories flood back of her younger years: the first immature stirrings of romance, the onset of puberty, and the frustrations of math and boys. At the station she is met by young farmer Toshio, and the encounters with him begin to reconnect her to forgotten longings. In lyrical switches between the present and the past, Taeko contemplates the arc of her life, and wonders if she has been true to the dreams of her childhood self.
Isao Takahata’s Only Yesterday is a masterful movie about both childhood and adulthood. It is a movie designed to be not just thought provoking but also insightful. It is a slower paced film, but this time creates the space needed to allow you to reflect on the path your life has taken.
The greatest thing about this movie it feels just as much a reflection of your life as Taeko’s. Isao Takahata so brilliantly captures the essence of childhood in such a way that despite being set in Japan in the 70s, it can just as easily read as anyone’s childhood. First crushes, friendships, sports, homework, puberty, family life… these are universal concepts not tethered to a time or place. There is a wonderful, dream-like feel to these scenes, and I too found memories of fifth grade resurfacing as I watched the film.
Taeko’s adult life is equally as universal. Feeling that she has just settled into a groove, doing what is expected of her, she begins to wonder whether this is the life she really wants for herself. Rather than working in an office block, she loves the traditional farm life, and spends her summers working outdoors. She wonders, as I’m sure just about everyone does, what her younger self would have thought about the path her life has taken.
As all Studio Ghibli movies do, Only Yesterday is about leaving behind the constructed world technology and reconnecting with the natural world. Here, it leads Taeko to harmony, clarity and peace of mind.
And of course, the animation is gorgeous. The only detriment is that it is on the slow side, and is ruminative rather than exciting. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing, just not everyone’s cup of tea.