by Lisa Dib
Although a Studio Ghibli animated production normally entails magical realism, bizarre creatures and an overall dark whimsy, Only Yesterday is not a typical Ghibli film. Indeed, the studio only provided the animation; the film is based on a popular manga story by Hotaru Okamoto and Yuko Tone, written and directed by Isao Takahata (Pom Poko, My Neighbours The Yamadas). Although the film was made in 1991, it is only this year getting a North American release, hence the renewed interest.
Only Yesterday focuses on Taeko, a twenty-seven year-old woman going on a countryside holiday, away from her work and tiny apartment in bustling Tokyo. She begins to reminisce about her childhood (specifically, 1966, when she is fifth grade): her cold father, the cruel and high expectations, her tumultuous relationships with her classmates and navigating oncoming puberty and adulthood. She “brings” her childhood self along as she considers how that time of her pre-adolescence affected the rest of her adult life.
Only Yesterday is more ‘realistic’ and dramatic than the mainstream anime that usually comes to cinemas; it is a sometimes sombre, sometimes silly look at the progression of one’s woman life, via ostracisation within her family and shyness and nerves in school. Animation-wise, it is unlike almost anything else of the genre I have seen: the facial expressions are deeply subtle, and humanistic (the animation was actually made to match the dialogue, as opposed to the reverse, which is typically the nom) to show off real dramatic changes in mood and thought. The film is never “a cartoon”; it is a very human, humourous and nuanced look at childhood, romance and family.
Although the film sometimes feels long (it is a straight two hours, where a Ghibli film might only ninety or one hundred minutes), it is balanced with humourous anecdotes, beautiful shows of emotion and quality storytelling - and you should expect nothing less.
Only Yesterday opens at the Nova on May 5.