Only Yesterday is sometimes referred to as the “lost” Studio Ghibli film. The only one of the Japanese animation giant’s features to have never been released in the United States, the 1991 film is finally getting a showing, with a new English voice cast starring Daisy Ridley and Dev Patel.
It was worth the wait.
Directed by Isao Takahata (The Tale of the Princess Kaguya), the film is a poetic yet lucidly rendered meditation on memory and maturity. Centering on Taeko (Ridley), a 27-year-old Tokyo office worker with no significant other and (apparently) not much of a life, the movie jumps back and forth between the present day and Taeko’s recollections of her fifth-grade self, triggered by a visit to a rural farm belonging to relatives of her married sister.
The memories that surface are both momentous and trivial: the rush of a childhood crush one moment and the experience of eating an unripe pineapple the next. Like Proust’s madeleine, seemingly meaningless triggers release deep thoughts of the past, present and future.
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“To become a butterfly,” Taeko muses, “one first has to become a chrysalis, even if one never wanted to become one.” It isn’t that Taeko doesn’t want to grow up, but that she doesn’t really know what that means, even after she meets a handsome farmer (Patel) who seems smitten with her.
Despite much of the story involving a little girl, Only Yesterday is not exactly a kid’s film. An air of grown-up melancholy — underscored by such lovely temporal metaphors as a sunset and nighttime shadows on a moving train — will render the film a bit inscrutable for young viewers, who will almost certainly identify with Taeko’s younger self more than they do with her moody, older incarnation.
Small moments take on larger meaning in this exquisite memoir. That’s as true of the plot — in which nothing terribly significant happens, except life — as it is of the visuals. A true artist, Takahata imbues every picture with significance, from the coruscation of headlights from a moving car on the leaves of a wet bush to a minute examination of the harvesting of safflower petals for the production of rouge.
It’s not just the animation that stirs, it’s also the sound design. Appropriately enough, the film’s original Japanese title, Omohide poro poro, translates loosely as “Memories [plop plop].” That’s the onomatopoeic sound made by falling tears.
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☆☆☆☆☆ (out of five)
Director: Isao Takahata
Cast: Dev Patel, Daisy Ridley
Rated: PG (a scene of corporal punishment of a child, brief nonsexual nudity, discussion of puberty)
Running time: 118 min.