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Only Yesterday (1991)

Taeko Okajima has lived her whole life in Tokyo, enjoying life of a single woman working in a prestigious company. But even with everything she has going for her, she still feels like something is missing in her life. Eager to get away from the humdrum of the city, Taeko decides to take a trip to the countryside and help her extended family harvest safflowers. But it is during this vacation that Taeko's old memories of her childhood struggles start bubbling to the surface. What is it about this trip that has triggered Taeko's nostalgia and will looking back help her find what she is looking for in her life?

Only Yesterday is the 6th film produced by Studio Ghibli, written and directed by Isao Takohata (which was his second time directing a feature length film for Ghibli after Grave of the Fireflies). The film was originally released in Japan on July 20th 1991. The story is based on a manga of the same name written by Hotaru Okamoto and Yuko Tone. The film is noted for exploring the drama genre and telling a story primarily targeted for adults. Even so it became one of the most highest grossing film in the Japanese market and is still held in high regard among critics and anime fans alike. The English adaptation is notable for casting Daisy Ridley (as 27-year-old Taeko), Dev Patel (Toshio), Alison Fernandez (Young Taeko) and many other notable vocal talents (such as Tara Strong, Laura Bailey, Grey DeLisle, and Ashley Eckstein just to name a few).

For Studio Ghibli's western fans, Only Yesterday was the film everyone had heard about but never had an opportunity to see. There were a few glimpses, such as its original airing on Turner Classic Movies in the original Japanese format. But unlike the other Ghibli films, it had never been dubbed or given a wide release. Part of the reason, I think, was due to the nature of the film in general. There are no supernatural beings, no action sequences, no outlandish ordeal that the films protagonist needs to overcome. It is just the story of a woman, looking back on her life to try and get a better idea on where she is going in life. Ironically, what makes this film so different is what makes it a masterpiece of both animation and filmmaking.

To start with, the animation itself, despite having been release over two decades ago, not only still holds up but some of the best animation that has ever come out of the studio. Much like Grave of the Fireflies, the characters faces were animated to match the performances of the actors, which is normally done the other way around in Japanese animation. Though that may not exactly be the case with the English dub, the translation and transition to matching such detailed animation was completely seamless.

Another stand out of the film's animation aside from the characters themselves are the backgrounds. The countryside of Japan seen through the eyes of the older Taeko is lush and detailed. Taeko's flashbacks to her childhood, however, take a different approach, with brighter lighting, faded colors and the character animation done in the traditional Ghibli style. It was a great contrast between the different sequences and helped to signify when the movie jumped back and forth between the present and past.

I'll admit, when I started to watch Only Yesterday, the frequency of the jumps between Taeko and her younger self, it left me a bit confused on what the focus of the film was going to be. However, as I kept watching, the jumps became more apparent and I found myself enjoying them even more as the film went on.

It's amazing how an animated film like this can take a story of a woman remembering her past while going through her day to day and not only making it a compelling narrative but a visual spectacle. Serving as a testament that animation can breathe new life into the mundane and make it extraordinary. Such as a young girl coming to grips with her womanhood, her reaction to her first crush, and her active imagination on becoming an acting star.

 Part of the magic this film has is watching how these memories have affected Taeko later on in life and how they influence her to keep moving forward. I'll admit the more I learned of Taeko's past, the more her journey became my journey. How many of those moments of her childhood that I recall going through myself and how they have affected my growth. By the time the end credits rolled, I found myself walking away with a lot to think about. Not just about the film but about myself.

Which is the mark of not just a great film, but an outstanding film.

While I can understand the initial hesitance to give Only Yesterday an English release, I am overjoyed that GKIDS took the opportunity to finally release it to a western audience. The slower pace and sudden transitions may not appeal to some viewers, but Only Yesterday pulls enough on the heartstrings and provides enough jaw-dropping visuals that make these problems seem like nitpicks. If you love Studio Ghibli and all that it has brought to the world of animation, Only Yesterday is a must see. Give it a watch and you may find yourself coming out of the experience with more than you expected.

For our list of theatre locations for Only Yesterday, check out the list here For more info on the film, check out GKIDS website here.