Only Yesterday is an old and arguably classic anime. I intentionally avoid writing traditional review because it has been done to death by people much smarter and more talented than me. So I decided to make this post a half anime review and half self-reflection for myself. I hope that this post can inspire you to do the same.
The Primer: Directed by Isao Takahata, Only Yesterday was a 1991 anime produced by Studio Ghibli. It differed significantly from other Ghibli titles because of its realistic drama-oriented setting instead of the usual high fantasy of its siblings. Taeko was a 27-year-old working woman who started reminiscing about her childhood during her trip to the countryside. The movie was mainly about how Taeko untangled her childhood complexes and finally discovered herself all over again.
Surprising enough, just when I was around Taeko’s age and had been working mindlessly without actually giving any introspective thoughts, I picked Only Yesterday out of the archive and watched it again. It was late Sunday night and probably rainy. I needed some peace of mind before another day of hard, debilitating work and Only Yesterday gave me that and much more. As Taeko learned about herself, the same thing happened to me as well. Here are some noteworthy impressions and questions I got from re-watching Only Yesterday.
Am I the person my 11-year-old self had wanted to be?
No, not even close. I dreamed a lot in my childhood. When I was in elementary school, I wanted to be a paleontologist who discovered extinct animals. I wanted to learn more and discovered all the secrets of the past. My perception of the world was wider and more ambitious compared to nowadays. Now I know that it was just a dream. I had been living in the tides of complex social conditions. Though I do not regret where I am right now, I know that it was not all up to me from the start. I did what I could from what I had. Taeko also dreamed a lot and at one point, she actually thought she could be famous actress. In the film, she was just an office worker. I kind of understand why thinking about childhood dreams feels great. It’s because back then, anything was still possible. As an adult, I know the limitations and difficulties in life; it feels like running into a brick wall.
From pupa to butterfly; the metamorphosis of life
From what I understand, Taeko often felt like she was stuck with her current life as a hard-working single woman. There was one scene with shots of butterflies and Taeko’s voice asking herself ‘have I been too busy flapping my wings’? She compared human life to the life cycle of butterflies. Although we do not undergo physical metamorphosis, we do undergo many stages of change throughout our lives. For Taeko, she wasn’t entirely satisfied with her current life. The feeling that there was another stage of life waiting to happen was bothersome. Fortunately for Taeko, her trip to the countryside triggered her transformation; the pupa finally turned to butterfly.
I also feel like I am stuck in a pupa sometimes. I am pretty sure that there is greater stage of life just waiting to manifest itself. Maybe I am too cautious when it comes to making choices and opening myself to others. Or maybe I have problems in prioritizing things in life. That could be the case but right now I am hopelessly entangled in a maze of works. Only Yesterday managed to hit to several of my soft spots. Who knows if this anime may change my life in the future?
I smell something…greenish.
Ghibli films just couldn’t help putting in some green concepts. Though undoubtedly a film about self-discovery, Only Yesterday also laid hands on environmental subjects. Organic farming was discussed at length in the film but this topic was currently somewhat out of date. But there was one scene I especially wanted to mention. When Toshio took Taeko for a trip around the farm, Taeko said that she loved the ‘natural scenery’ of this farming community. To that Toshio contradicted her with the fact that everything around them was actually man-made; the field, the farm, the stream and all the tree groves. Everything was organized and controlled to facilitate farming and maximize the agricultural products. There was fine line between living in harmony with nature and totally taking control of it.
If Only Yesterday were instead made as live-action movie, would it still be so special?
There was no doubt that Only Yesterday was a special anime. But would it still be special if it had been made into live-action movie instead? I don’t really know. It could have gone both ways in my opinion. Without the portrait-like animation, the film would surely lose its nostalgic atmosphere and the scenes in which the past and present overlapped will not be as convincing. But on the other hand, the unique style of storytelling alone would have made this film special.
Conclusion: Lay down everything that you normally expect from general anime before start watching Only Yesterday. This film is very different even among its own family of Ghibli titles. Watch it with open mind and you may find your life forever changed by it.
ps. This anime earned just a B+ rating from my first time viewing many years ago. It seemed like I have been evolving through time as well.
Title: Only Yesterday (Omoide Poro Poro)
Released date: July 20, 1991
Running Time: 118 minutes
Director: Isao Takahata
Animated by: Studio Ghibli