Review: Only Yesterday
Director: Isao Takahata
By Rhys Tarling
For a film that is so easy going, it sure provoked some fascinatingly mixed reactions from the sizable crowd. During the film everyone “aww”d and hollered at the appropriate moments. Really, I hadn’t been a part of such evident engagement with a story since I was a kindergartener. But by the time the credits rolled there were quite a few who grumbled “Hmm. Anti-climactic.”
“I mean there was no conflict,” complained one guy.
In addition to being the most pleasant film I’ve seen recently, Only Yesterday, just by virtue of being the kind of story that it is, reveals quite a lot about what we expect from films (hint: it’s far more specific than expectations like “entertain me”).
Only Yesterday is about 27 year old city worker Taeko who is – while certainly well adjusted – slightly dissatisfied with her life. Searching for something different, she travels to the countryside to work on a farm. There she befriends a young organic farmer, who is amused and confused by the ways of city folk. Taeko’s childhood in Tokyo is also interspersed within the narrative – why that is the case isn’t clear until the ending; an ending which left many, myself included, a teary mess.
This is a Studio Ghibli venture, the same studio who enchanted the world with Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, and many more. Unlike those stories which had one foot in the magical and the other in the mundane, Only Yesterday is a realistic slice-of-life drama. The few characters that populate it aren’t particularly talented or destined to do anything great; they’re all merely king, awkward, and trying their best. They aren’t movie archetypes, they’re people you know. Which might seem like a damn silly thing to say concerning a hand-drawn animated movie, but it’s true.
The animation is predictably gorgeous. Japanese hand-drawn animation had reached a still unmatched level with 1988’s Akira, so it’s no surprise that this 1991 feature is so intricately detailed. However, the art style here is distinct in that Takeo’s flashbacks to her childhood have the kind of hazy quality that’s reminiscent of real childhood memories, but its style is similar to that of a children’s illustration book.
It looks romanticised, but the story sure isn’t – dreams are crushed, parents and siblings dish out cruelty in a stunningly casual fashion (which was a product of the time, I guess), kids in school gleefully and maliciously pick on anything that’s different, and maths homework has the mystical ability that no other sort of homework has to make you feel worthless and stupid. It’s this kind of unflinching commitment to realism that made the sweeter, and painfully adorable, moments stand out and elicit audible “aww”s from the crowd – because those moments were earned and believable; they were real.
Much like real life, there is no one overarching problem to be resolved or a villain to triumph over; just a series of conflicts that seem insignificant in retrospect but nonetheless callus at heart. Which brings me back to the guy who complained about there being “no conflict”. He is of course wrong because this film throws conflict at little Taeko and big Taeko the whole time, but he’s right in the specific sense that there is no tangible obstacle to anything Taeko wants because Taeko doesn’t know what she wants. Which is inherent in the drama of this particular film.
For all the moaning and complaining that there is no originality in movies anymore, I don’t believe that a lot of people want to be challenged by something new when they go to the movies. This isn’t to say that people are dumb, but that most people go into a movie want the comfort of familiarity – to a certain point. The kind of familiarity like: we’re introduced to character, we understand their wants and find their personality compelling, they are challenged, they overcome the challenge and grow as a result. It’s comforting because it’s familiar but is a loose enough framework to accommodate the complete spectrum of tones, characters, and genres. And if we consider that cinema is our deepest hopes made real on the screen, we want to be reassured that not only can our challenges be neatly resolved but we can become better people as a result of those challenges. It goes down easy, and it’s the quickest kind of story to produce (an important thing to consider being that many films have a release date before a word of the script is written). And it’s a good formula! Heck, some of the greatest films ever made follow this formula.
But Only Yesterday, in its own innocent and sunshiny way, spits in the faces of neat resolutions, a linear path, and obviousness. It dares us, us who are expecting big and important things, to find grace and beauty in small things like picking flowers, remembering a childhood song that gets you through difficult times, and eating a foreign piece of fruit with your family.
It urges us to consider that challenges can’t be easily solved, that the hurt is always lingering in some way, but that doesn’t mean we can’t recall that hurt with some measure of wistfulness and fondness.
Fiona Apple once sang “Nothing wrong when a song ends in a minor key”. Only Yesterday is composed entirely of minor keys that convey a total experience of nothing less than what it means to be a human being.
Due to popular demand, Luna Cinema Leederville will have 4pm showings on May 21 and 22.