The Studio Ghibli collection from my daughter continues to give hours of delight. Every random choice takes me off into dream landscapes – and after each one I say, “well that was Studio Ghibli’s masterpiece.”
But today I really think it’s true. Like Whisper of the Heart, Only Yesterday is about real people. It is not a fantastical escapade through wondrous landscapes, but again, like Whisper of the Heart, it finds magic in what people do and see every day. But it is so much more.
I’m sure everyone has at some time looked back on their lives, back to the little child full of dreams and hopes, and wondered how life turned out as it did. What happened to that child? Takeo, in Only Yesterday, gets lucky. Taking a break from her life in Tokyo to go picking safflowers in the country, she is followed by that very child – her ten-year-old 5th grade self. The memories come flooding back, of that pivotal year in her childhood when she learned that dreams are something for adults to shatter.
Some, like Shizuku in Whisper of the Heart, have wonderfully supportive parents who honor the little warrior fighting to be all they can be. Studio Ghibli doesn’t put out the message that every adult heedlessly crushes the beautiful spirit inside a child. But when it does, the message is so memorable and so meaningful that it will leave you staring back at your own memories, and understanding, finally, why life turned out the way it did.
Who are you really? The real question is who were you, before you were painstakingly – and painfully – ‘fixed’ by people who thought they knew what was best for you? People who never once asked what was in your heart, and who would dismiss the answer even if they were told? At 27, Takeo has turned out exactly as intended, but she still cannot overcome the yearning for another life, one she should have lived.
The basic plot is very simple – Takeo takes a vacation and meets a boy. But within that slender framework, director Isao Takahata has woven an allegory for every adult looking for meaning – yes, even grandmothers – who are haunted by that child, and mostly choose to ignore its presence since it still doesn’t ‘fit in’. Only Yesterday will sweep away that barrier for once and for all. I’d say it beats a session or 30 with a psychiatrist any day.
It is a slow movie – Takeo has a lot to work through, and Takahata takes his time, not just opening up her past, but also carefully crafting the characters that take us on this journey. Takeo is the most fully realized and dimensional character in any movie, live or anime. She is beautifully crafted in every way, from the smile lines round her mouth and crinkles round her eyes, to the gradual opening of her heart.
There is so much richness and truth here, from Takeo’s memories of learning about menstruation at school (no misty eyed waffle about ‘becoming a woman’ here) to the the intricacies of producing red dye from safflowers. I gather that Disney found the menstruation thing distasteful and so refused to dub and issue the movie in America. Their loss – let them have the twee and sugar coated.
You must keep watching right to the end. I wouldn’t spoil it for the world, but it left me with a smile on my face that just won’t go away and a lighter heart. I never really bought into that ‘life changing movie’ stuff, but now I am a believer. This movie can change your life.