by Elizabeth Stoddard

Celebrating the 25th anniversary of its original release, Only Yesterday opens in select American theatres this weekend. The 1991 animated film by Isao Takahata (director of the Oscar-nominated The Tale of Princess Kayuga) has scarcely been seen on North American screens before now, one of the rare Studio Ghibli pictures to not receive home video/DVD distribution stateside. Disney arranged English dubbing with some familiar names for the anniversary release; the dubbed version is the one I was given to screen, so it’s what I’ll be reviewing.

In 1982 Tokyo, Taeko (voiced by Daisy Ridley, Star Wars: The Force Awakens) is an officeworker who loves to spend her vacation days working in the fields of Yamagata. She’s 27 years old and living alone, therefore has to deal with teasing from a sister and matchmaking from farmworkers. On this journey to the countryside, she remembers growing up in 1966.

© 1991 Hotaru Okamoto — Yuko Tone — GNH

Timelines converge during the film as her fifth-grade memories intrude on her time alone and with others. These remembrances aren’t some rose-colored fantasy… amidst her young moments of fancy, she recalls her father’s temper and overbearing nature, her mistreatment of a peer, and her annoyance at being mistaken for someone with a period.

While I’m on the topic, Only Yesterday is the only film I’ve seen that spends such quantity of time among girls/any females speaking frankly about menstruation. After a girls-only health class one day, Taeko (the 5th grade iteration voiced by Alison Fernandez) and other girls in her grade discuss getting supplies for their soon-to-come periods from the nurse. They realize the significance of this time in their lives and want to keep this new knowledge to themselves (so boys won’t tease them). Periods are still a largely taboo subject in cinema; it’s pleasantly astonishing that the 1991 film treats them in such a down-to-earth fashion.

© 1991 Hotaru Okamoto — Yuko Tone — GNH

Although much of the film is spent in the past, there’s a romantic element to Taeko’s present life that leads to character growth. Organic farmer Toshio (Dev Patel, Slumdog Millionaire) picks her up at the train station and they grow close during her time in Yamagata. Through conversations about farming techniques and their early lives, Taeko finds a sympathetic friend (and maybe more) in Toshio. Their interactions and the resultant feelings challenge Taeko to realize she must show her true self, faults and all, to truly connect: “only connect…” as E.M. Forster wrote.

The deep focus on this woman’s life is brought to the viewer through detailed animation. Like large frames in comic books, at times important items — the Puma symbol, fingers touching — pop off the screen in quick bursts for emphasis. The artists’ attention to detail here creates exquisite results. Young Taeko’s family tries pineapple around the table and her father’s cigarette smoke momentarily immerses their faces. Headlight beams are refracted on leaves of rain-wet bushes. It’s the extra touches such as these that help make Only Yesterday an achingly beautiful, thought-provoking work.

© 1991 Hotaru Okamoto — Yuko Tone — GNH

Playing in Austin at Alamo Drafthouse Slaughter Ln and Regal Arbor. English-dubbed version in afternoon screenings, original Japanese (with subtitles) in evenings.

Previous post Fandor Files Vol. 1: Two Legendary Filmmakers Take on WWII…and Win!
Next post TRIPLE 9 Mixes Throwback Grit and Genuine Suspense