Only Yesterday by Isao Takahata is by far one of the best anime I’ve watched and it certainly stands out among most Studio Ghibli’s films. Takahata’s other well-known title would be Grave of the Fireflies which I think everyone already knows already. Only Yesterday is a lovely film about growing up with a heart full of childhood memories and vividly remembering them like it was only yesterday. Only Yesterday review mainly delves into how this anime reminds me of my own childhood and how golden Isao Takahata simply is as a director and as a person.
Unlike my other write-up on In This Corner Of The World by Sunao Katabuchi, which is more of a coming-of-age film, the protagonist here is far more mature. We will discuss this in detail in my Only Yesterday review.
Introduction to Only Yesterday
Studio Ghibli’s enchanting classic “Only Yesterday” by Isao Takahata is a 1991 movie based on the manga of the same name by Hotaru Okamoto and Yuko Tone. A realistic movie without any fantasy or supernatural elements. It takes us through Taeko’s journey of self-discovery and personal growth with a reminder of how growing up is a challenging process. And I’m pretty sure no grown-up would deny the fact that growing up is tough. Her flashback takes us to the time when The Beatles were immensely popular. It’s also when pineapples were expensive and rare and growing up under patriarchy.
Taeko reminiscing about her childhood memories, especially her school days, had me reminiscing about my school days as well. I’d say those days were the best, and I made lots of memories. Though I don’t remember all of it like Taeko, I remember bits and pieces of the good old days. Her flashbacks made her question herself if her present self is what her 10-year-old self would have wanted. And wonders, “Perhaps my fifth-grade self is trying to tell me a new way to fly.”
But pineapple was once a weird fruit! I guess.
Understanding Only Yesterday
Only Yesterday is centered around Taeko Okajima, a single woman in her late 20s working in Tokyo. To take a break from her busy life and relax her mind, she decides to go to the countryside on holiday to visit her distant cousin during the annual safflower harvest. During her journey, the flashback of her younger self reminds her of the bittersweet memories. Taeko recalls the days in school during the summer holiday wishing to go on a vacation, just like her other classmates, who had relatives in the countryside. It was like she was on a trip with her ten-year-old self. She says, “I didn’t expect to bring my fifth-grade self along for the trip.”
Memories come flooding about her school, family, friends, first crush, some funny, embarrassing moments, and the innocence of childhood. Her vivid flashbacks take us back and forth between her past and present. Taeko recalls envying her friends who had family in the countryside because her family has lived in Tokyo for generations.
Arriving in the countryside
On her arrival, Taeko is greeted by her brother-in-law’s second cousin, Toshio, a local farmer. They quickly form a friendship which, some would say, grows even further. During her stay, her childhood memories completely absorb her. Taeko connects her present with her childhood self, reminiscing about the days in school. The awkwardness of menstruation, her stringent father who rejects her participation in a theatrical show, being bad at math. And of course, I can relate to her on some level because I was and am terrible at math too! In between having conversations with Toshio, she begins to develop her feelings for him.
Toshio’s grandmother suggests quitting her job in the city and settling in the country with Toshio, which leaves Taeko flustered. And towards the end of her vacation, as she boards the train back to Tokyo, she has a change of mind. She finally decides to stay back in the countryside to embark on a new journey. Taeko realizes her true self and has a different perspective on life. The ending is satisfactory, unlike the other anime I’ve watched.
How Only Yesterday approach its female characters
Only Yesterday has a realistic approach towards the woman in society, saying which marriage is often always a topic. And it’s very well depicted in the movie through Taeko’s journey of self-discovery. Taeko from having a conversation on the phone with her sister about rejecting a guy’s proposal. And Toshio’s grandmother’s suggestion for Taeko to get married and settle in the country. Well, those were the days about marriage being the prime concern. And Taeko being an independent woman who is a little lost and trying to find her calling in life.
These added details make the story more exciting and wholesome. Taeko, though born and raised in the city, has always loved the countryside since childhood. And so she intends to spend her vacation with her brother-in-law’s family on a farm. Plucking safflowers at the same farm where she also spent her last vacation in the Yamagata Prefecture.
As Taeko starts her journey, she takes a trip down memory lane about her ten-year-old self, and the story unfolds. She reminisces about eating pineapple for the first time—the family sitting at the dinner table staring at the pineapple because they haven’t seen one before. Getting scolded by her mother for being a picky eater daily.
Relationship with her father
Taeko recalls whining about not having handbags like her sisters when the family is getting ready to go to the food fair. She runs out of the house without wearing shoes. When her father notices that she’s barefoot, he slaps her across the face, which was really sad to watch.
At one point, Taeko remembers her minor role at the school play stealing the show, which brings new opportunities at her door. And maybe she could’ve been a star, but her strict father crushes her dreams who is of the view that “show business people are no good.” Her father is a tight-mouthed patriarch who spends most of his time reading a newspaper and smoking away at the dinner table. Being the lawmaker of the house, his “yes” and “no” calls the final decision, and Taeko’s dream ends before it begins.
How Taeko deals with her past.
One thing about Taeko is that she’s not bitter about her past. Instead, she remembers all these little details about her ten-year-old self as a gentle reminder of how it has shaped her future self. It does reveal how she has outgrown some bad experiences in life and is trying to find her true self. Her longing for the countryside invites our attention, showing the kind of lifestyle she imagines—a simple living and more connected to nature.
On the other hand, Taeko’s friendship with Toshio has helped her along the way. She finds herself sharing her fears and secrets, and Toshio, being a good listener, listens and helps her clear her mind. Taeko recalls a bitter memory about her classmate. A poor boy who was always dirty, and she hated him for always bullying her. He even refused to shake her hand the day he was about to transfer school when the teacher suggested the class to shake his hand. And ever since, Taeko has always felt guilty for looking down on him. But Toshio tells her that she doesn’t know boys’ thoughts and clarifies that he showed a tough-guy image to feel superior. This reassurance helps Taeko to her through her unpleasant memory.
Toshio and Taeko have some similarities; in a sense, Toshio quits his job in the city to settle in the countryside as a farmer. And Taeko has always admired the countryside since her childhood. This similarity makes them a good pair, and perchance might be the reason for a budding romance between them.
Beauty of the film.
And as a nature lover, I must mention the beauty of the fields and their surrounding nature. Without appreciating its beauty, it’d be so incomplete. Only Yesterday, while switching back and forth between Taeko’s memories to the 60s and 80s, also celebrates the indescribable beauty of the countryside.
Taeko arrives at her destination just before dawn, and her excitement is totally relatable. She is all set and ready with her work pants on to start harvesting the safflower. And a place with such beauty is enough to make one forget the problems and get lost in its beauty, admiring its splendor. The mesmerizing safflower field and the bright-coloured flowers, Romanian folk song playing in the background, and the sun slowly rising from the distant mountains. To see such detailed beauty was a delight. Nature’s healing is free; there’s a quote “Get lost in the beauty and tranquillity of nature to find your true self again and again.” And this quote perfectly summarizes Taeko’s urge to visit the countryside—to find her lost self.
Conclusion of our Only Yesterday review
Only Yesterday is remarkably a thoughtful film about growing up with countless memories, making us wonder and look back to our younger days. The storyline is simple, artistic, and beautifully executed. A very realistic approach towards life, relationships, and everyday struggles that one faces in life. And although all the memories are not filled with happy moments, it shapes us, and it’s something which is very well presented in “Only Yesterday.” Taeko’s favorite show, Hyokkori Pumpkin Island’s song, has rightly said, “If today’s no good, you’ll have tomorrow. If tomorrow’s no good, you have the next day. If that’s no good, there’ll be another. There’s always a tomorrow.”
Only Yesterday is worth the watch. A simple, reflective, and meaningful slice of nostalgia and no doubt is a lovely film. Maybe if you’re a little lost, like Taeko, re-visiting your younger self or going on a trip can get you back on track.
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