“Only Yesterday” feels like a companion piece to Isao Takahata’s 2014 swan song, “The Tale of Princess Kaguya,” but it's actually one of the films that led to its manifestation. Arriving on American shores in 2016, “Only Yesterday” was originally released in Japan on July 1991. It’s a film that has been held back from U.S. soil due to its embracement of womanhood, but it's that unshameful welcoming of studying a woman’s maturity that leads to “Only Yesterday” being a delightful discovery for initial viewers and first-time observers of the English dub alike.
Written by Isao Takahata and adapted for American audiences by David Freedman, “Only Yesterday” is a story based off of the “Memories Come Tumbling Down” manga from Hotaru Okamoto & Yuuko Tone, depicting that dreamlike essence of reminiscing. Specifically, a 27-year old woman’s hindsight of her childhood. The stories behind her first crush, her first time trying pineapple, her first period, and how all of these things influenced her maturity. In the present day, she’s a woman going back to the countryside of life, realizing that the city life may not be all it's cracked up to be, trying to relive that passion for life.
She craves that spirit of hard work, but work that fulfills you. Something that makes you feel whole inside, tired from the effort you’ve given to something, pouring out your love for a task that you enjoy. It’s a story that examines how our immaturity and idealism that we inherently possess as children carries us to the adult that we eventually grow into, including our interactions with literal biological advancement, such as puberty.
Takahata’s “Only Yesterday” falls in line with his mature stories that star children, such as his World War II survival story from the perspective of Japanese children in “Grave of the Fireflies,” or his empathetic study of women in Japanese society in “Kaguya.”
He, like his long-time collaborator and friend Hayao Miyazaki, is an artist who produces child-focused stories that teach adults as much as they enforce life lessons upon children. His aesthetic style is also something that continuously evolved throughout his career, from his brand and detailed hand-drawn animation of “Only Yesterday” to the minimalist and seemingly vibrant style of “Kaguya.” Isao Takahata is no stranger to the conversation of genius filmmaking, despite his stories being simplistically referred to as children’s cartoons by some.
“Only Yesterday” is a film that exemplifies his extraordinary ability as a storyteller. Continuously transitioning between the present day and her adolescence, painting the past with this blurry outlined fade, replicating that real-life visual that we experience when looking back on our past. It’s hazy, slightly irregular, almost misconstrued, while remaining clear as day due to its impact on our lives, allowing us to watch a world that is partially regained by the senses. The saying “art imitating life” could never be so poetically attached to anything more than this animated coming of age dream of a film.
The stories of the past are carried throughout the film, sometimes being placed in the backseat so that the present day narrative can take back the wheel. While it's dialogue-heavy and meandering and a bit detracting in comparison to the stories of her childhood, the adulthood perspective provides some of the film’s most enchanting moments that can roar the heart a beat or two.
It’s because of the deep-rooted emotion that we almost instinctively assign to children that these stories carry far more weight than the ones stemming from her womanhood. They are charming and warm, while fundamentally depressing when we watch her deal with the mockery of popular girls, the belittlement of her voice due to her age, and her silenced individuality due to the persistent squashing of her dreams and hopes that eventually carry over to her adult seclusion feeling like an earned side effect of the trials she’s encountered.
It’s a tale that feels inherently tender and tangible, that’s not to say there is no fantasy to be seen. A particular moment exemplifies her metaphorical translation of happiness from her interaction with her first crush, she flies through the air, soaring on cloud nine as a giant pink heart pops from the roof. These moments alongside the tragedies and the resonating aura we endure make the love letters to nature and paths of adulthood feel lackluster. We always seem to look back with reverberance and sentiment and look forward with pessimism and anxiety; it’s genuinely the passion that feels like it was “Only Yesterday,” while the tension of the world feels like it's apart of today.
Isao Takahata exhumes the essence of that message with ease almost, the English-speaking voice talents of Daisy Ridley (with an outstanding American accent), Dev Patel, and Ashley Eckstein, and the Japanese-speaking voices of Miki Imai, Toshirô Yanagiba, and Yoko Honna add that extra amount of empathy to make this film something beautiful to experience inside a theater.
It’s romantically swooping ending that broaches during the credits is tear-jerkingly flattering to watch, a rare feat to see in both modern-day animation and live-action filmmaking alike. The Pixars and Dreamworks of the world are always fantastic, but the magic of Studio Ghibli seems to breathe rarified air into the world of hand-drawn stories still, even when their more than twenty-five years late to the party.