After seeing the film again this year, I believe Only Yesterday is one of the finest animated films ever made. Quiet, intimate, and poignant, Isao Takahata’s masterpiece contains elements Studio Ghibli movies are renowned for – a well-rounded female protagonist, a deep respect for nature, insightful commentary on society – melding them all together into a captivating and deeply human story.
Only Yesterday revolves around Taeko, a 27-year-old woman working at a desk job in Tokyo in the early 80’s. Her life is not bad by any means, but she feels unfulfilled. A little unsure and lost, she travels to the countryside on her vacation, having enjoyed her visit there the previous year, volunteering at her sister-in-law’s farm. Working as a farmhand proves satisfying, and Taeko develops a deep appreciation and connection to rural life.
Throughout the film, Taeko finds herself connecting daily events with memories of her ten-year old self. These childhood flashbacks are depicted in subdued watercolours: vignettes of life at school and home, memories and feelings of first crushes and embarrassing moments. They reveal a creative and unconventionally thinking girl, far different from the polite and restrained present-day woman.
Along the way, Taeko begins to develop feelings for Toshio, an organic farmer (before organic farming became mainstream) who gave up his job as a businessman in order to find his own calling in life. Nearing the end of her vacation, Taeko is suddenly presented with an opportunity to stay and make a new life in the countryside with Toshio. Frightened and shaken at this possibility, she dismisses it, boarding the train back to Tokyo. As she sits on the train, she finds herself persuaded by her ten-year old self to embark on a new and uncertain path in life. I won’t spoil the conclusion, but the admittedly sentimental ending ranks as one of my personal favourites.
Crossroads of Destiny
Only Yesterday was released not long after the collapse of the Japanese bubble economy in the early 90’s. The highest grossing domestic movie of its year, the film resonated with many who were forced to reevaluate their lives after the financial crisis. Many came to see Only Yesterday as a subtle critique of the ills of a conformist Japanese society too driven by notions of prestige and material success. They also believed that Taeko’s final decision in the movie suggested that simple living, inner peace, and emotional self-awareness were more fulfilling and sustainable goals to pursue.
Two decades after its release, this interpretation of Only Yesterday seems more relevant than every before. We appear to be at a similar crossroad following the global financial meltdown of 2008. Should we continue with the status quo and gauge success through percentages of economic growth, dollars of goods produced, and number of possessions accrued at the expense of natural, social, and human capital? Or should we strive to emphasize considerations to elements that make our culture, the environment, and us healthier and more resilient?
As I wrote in a previous Ekostory, My Neighbour Totoro, one of the things I appreciate about Ghibli films is that they are allowed to “breathe”. Only Yesterday is perhaps the finest example of this. There is an unforgettable sequence in the movie that blows me away every time I watch it:
Watching the sunrise in a field of flowers…
Taeko arrives at the farm just before dawn, ready for work. Her hosts greet her and they begin work harvesting safflower plants for use in dye. The love lavished on the scene is plainly apparent: I am mesmerized by each meticulous hand-drawn still of dew-kissed flowers. An eclectic Romanian folk song plays in the background, an odd fit but it works. I take in the slow majesty of the rising sun from behind the distant mountains. Nothing really happens, but I sit wholly enraptured by the vibrancy and beauty of the entire sequence. It is one of the most memorable movie scenes I have ever experienced.
Unlike fellow Studio Ghibli founder Hayao Miyazaki’s forays into the fantastical, Takahata devotes his energies into exploring the joy and beauty of the ordinary and mundane. In Only Yesterday, he grasps the significance of the quiet moment, utilizing it as an opportunity to celebrate the country landscape and the living world in all their glory.
Connection to Country
Farming’s hard work.
One could easily conclude that Only Yesterday is espousing the virtues of a rural lifestyle over an urban one, and is a proponent of a return to nature mindset. To some extent that is true; Studio Ghibli films often depict worlds from a seemingly simpler and less complicated time. But Only Yesterday does not succumb to romanticism. The film’s supporting characters frequently speak of the hardships of agricultural work, the lack of opportunities in the country, and the pervasive attractions of consumer culture. Nor does the film claim rural life to be more natural than urban life. In one exchange, Toshio corrects Taeko on her perception of the countryside:
Toshio: You see, when people from big cities see the forests, the woods, or the flowing water, they quickly accept such things as natural. However, except in the highest reaches of the mountains, all the sites that are called the “country” are actually made by people.
What Taeko regards as nature isn’t natural at all; the landscape has been altered over generations of human habitation. What Toshio wants Taeko to understand is that nature and humans have always been connected and will continue to shape each other, and it is the constant acknowledgement and respect for this interdependence in rural life that he finds appealing. Even as an urbanite, Taeko seems to grasp this connection on a subconscious level:
Toshio: Farmers couldn’t live without getting continuous benefits from nature, could they? And that’s why the farmers, for a long, long time, have also been doing many things for nature themselves. One might say this is the interdependence between nature and people… Maybe this is what “the country” is.
Taeko: … I think that’s why it’s nostalgic. I’ve been thinking for a long time about why I feel like this is my home, even though I wasn’t born or raised here.
Only Yesterday reminds me that a healthy relationship between humans and nature is a symbiotic one. We cannot live without nature, but we also cannot live without altering it. Whether we do so with understanding and wisdom or with brute force and in ignorance is the more pertinent matter.
Reflection and Nostalgia
Faded memories of a first crush…
Taeko’s childhood takes place in 1960’s Japan, a time when pineapples were rare, the Beatles were the craze, and families were governed under stern and unquestioned patriarchs. What makes Only Yesterday remarkable is that despite these vast differences in culture and time, I am nevertheless able to connect with the emotional essence of her memories, even if the events themselves are foreign. It captures the bittersweet nature of nostalgia better than any other film I have come across.
Taeko’s journey of self-discovery throughout the movie highlights the importance of introspection for personal growth. Unless the past is made part of the present by memory and acknowledgement, there is no path forward. Growing up is a tough process; we can lose our way, discarding and forgetting the dreams and aspirations that gave us joy as children. Sometimes we need to stop and look back to understand what we truly want for our future, for it is often through the voice of the inner child, pure and sure, that we discover the courage and strength to pursue what makes us happy, if only we were in the right frame of mind to listen.
Nourishing the Inner Child
On the surface, Taeko is depicted as a polite and ordinary young woman. As the film progresses, we discover that much of this is in reality a mask she dons in order to appease family and society. Her childhood memories reveal someone who was always a bit of an odd duck. Born into a generation and society with rigid expectations, Taeko is pressured to become someone she is not. Growing up, her creativity and non-conventional thinking is stifled on several occasions. During one flashback, her acting aspirations with the local university was instantly extinguished by her father who claimed that “all show business people were no good.” After faring poorly in a test because she saw fractions different than most, Taeko overhears her mother exclaims in frustration that “the girl’s not normal!” Even as an adult there is judgment for her to conform; her sister bluntly tells her that she is getting old and that she should settle down and get married. Well-intentioned as she is, her sister doesn’t understand why Taeko needs to go to the country or why she is wasting time reminiscing about the past.
Hearing that you’re not normal…
At the beginning of the movie, I see a grown woman who is unhappy but does not know why, moving through a life that is not truly hers. But Taeko is fortunate: her ten-year old self, the embodiment of her true nature, has survived into adulthood; she only needs the time and space to find herself once more. By working through the past and sharing it with others who sympathize and support her, Taeko is able to understand who she is and thus enter into a new stage of her life.
The suppression of creativity in a conformist culture reminds me of a recent conversation surrounding education I had with a bright young man in Nepal during my travels. He lamented that their schools are too focused simply on rote memorization and regurgitation of facts. As a result, students lack the creativity and adaptability to become the future leaders of the country.
As a partial product of such a system myself, I am thankful for the foundation and self-discipline that style of learning instilled in me. But at the same time, I recognize the need to cultivate qualities of creativity, imagination, and non-conventional thinking, especially in a complex and rapidly changing world. How do we as educators, communicators, parents, teachers, and leaders strike a balance between nurturing creative thinking and imparting foundational skillsets? How do we ensure that children grow unstunted, surviving into creative and functional adults?
Only Yesterday is a genre-defying movie. It eschews traditional expectations of what an animated movie should be, instead exploring themes and ideas with a subtlety usually relegated to live-action films. But director Takahata deftly utilizes the medium in a way that fully captures the essence of the ordinary, reminding me that life is full of interesting and exciting experiences that stay with us no matter how mundane they initially appear to be. Like its protagonist, I am a product of my past, moulded not only by great life altering events, but also by a myriad of minor day-to-day ones that no one else remembers. The film reaffirms the beauty of nature and our connection to it while speaking deeply to those who have experienced the bittersweet longing of nostalgia; I would do well to occasionally reflect upon these ideas. Above all, Only Yesterday is simply a gem of a film, lovingly crafted and beautifully told. I hope you have a chance to see it.
Images of Omohide Poro Poro © 1991 Studio Ghibli. All rights reserved.