Only Yesterday’s US release is nothing short of a miracle. For years, it suffered as the only Studio Ghibli film to never make it stateside. Even during the brief time period in the late 90’s/early 21st century when Disney shoved Ghibli dubs out like candy, this one remained curiously absent. The only way anyone could legally view it was when a subtitled version aired on the Turner Classic Movies channel. As a dedicated connoisseur of all things Ghibli, this was the equivalent of the Holy Grail. Watching it for the first time left an overwhelming impression on me. The story of an adult woman reminiscing of her childhood opened up a gateway of rose-colored nostalgia of my youth in the 90’s. It’s been twenty-five years since it came out, but Only Yesterday’s themes are just as timeless and relevant today.
It’s 1982 and twenty-seven year Taeko Okijama is about to leave the bustling life of Tokyo for a brief vacation in the country. The rural life of Japan has been an exciting prospect for her since she was a little girl. As she ventures off to Yamagata, Taeko relives memories of her ten-year-old self, represented as a series of vignettes. Throughout her journey, Taeko frequently revisits her childhood as she attempts to discover who she is.
If I had to hazard a guess on Only Yesterday’s delayed arrival (other than the unconfirmed rumors that the extensive scene discussing girls’ periods scared Disney off), it probably has to do with the movie’s tone and presentation. Coming-of-age stories are plentiful, but Only Yesterday presents itself in a highly realistic fashion. The fantastical elements of other Studio Ghibli films are a no-show; even the equally low-key Whispers of the Heart has occasional sequence breaks to fill the screen with magic and whimsy. Only Yesterday sounds like a pretentious indie flick: it is a quiet two-hour introspective journey about a woman’s self-discovery. Arguably the dullest moment in the film is about an hour in, as Taeko praises the hard working farmers of Yamagata and the wonders of nature. It’s classic Ghibli, but it’s a segment you’ll love or hate depending on your perception of country life. But Only Yesterday’s greatest strength is its meditative drive. It poignantly explores the everyday experience with raw intimacy, evocatively opening up Taeko’s world. Only Yesterday is more than just a movie I could relate to; it was a personal epiphany.
Isao Takahata is no stranger to subtlety. Ten-year-old Taeko’s life is typical of her age: filled with awkward crushes, math problems, and periods. These scenes are told through gentle hands, capturing casual events from a ten-year-old’s point of view. Each moment with Young Taeko acts as a stepping stone to her growth and a metaphor for Older Taeko’s dilemmas. Mathematics is an insurmountable mountain to climb and her older self feels anyone who understood fractions had their life in order. Takeo’s obliviousness to her romantic attraction to simple but kindhearted Toshio brings up memories of a rude boy who used to treat young Takeo indifferently because he secretly liked her. A call from a college to cast her in a child’s role for a play led Taeko to delusional dreams of stardom until she grew up and realized it was a fleeting moment of hubris. Throughout, you see the pieces being laid as Taeko learns from her naive assumptions, gradually transforming into her twenty-seven-year-old self: one who has since matured, but still maintains the giddiness and independent streak that dominated her childhood. Young Taeko’s scenes are ridiculously minor to look at from the viewpoint of an adult, but they are presented as momentous and huge for a 5th grader, a retrospective that serves well for Older Taeko.
Only Yesterday leaves another permanent mark on me not just on a thematic level, but on a specifically cultural one, too. This is a tale from the perspective of an East Asian woman. As a Korean-American, I will always have an outsider’s view on Taeko’s native Japanese background, and whatever I interpret won’t seamlessly match up to what is likely occurring on-screen, but the movie left a visible mark on me because it was familiar. Young Taeko’s rambunctious behavior contrasting heavily with her conservative parents was an all too similar experience to mine growing up. Almost to chilling effects. I had a stoic father who acted as the head-of-the-household. My parents raised daughters who grew up with modern paraphernalia and foreign pop culture that confused them (for Taeko’s sisters, it was the Beatles; for me, Backstreet Boys.) Math was a struggle and the source of disappointment to my educationally-dominated parents, and my mother still badgers me to find a boyfriend as I get older. Every moment of Taeko is a reflection of my life as a girl juggling Korean traditions and American superficiality. This clash of ethnicity is integrated seamlessly into the background that it plays just as much a part on Taeko’s development.
In spite of its ethnic framework, Only Yesterday’s themes are broad that any woman can enjoy. They, too, have gone through the awkward stages of puberty and the dumb little boys making fun of it. They can remember first crushes; big, unrealistic life goals; and being self-absorbed until they were old enough to realize it. For me, the scene that gripped me the most involved Young Taeko’s childish demands for a new bag. Tired of the old hand-me-downs and living under her sister’s shadow forces her to sulk and grab her parents’ attention. She bitterly wants to be alone, but steps out of line when she feels ignored, causing her father to slap her across her face, the only time he’s ever done so. It is an unpleasant, naked moment — a demonstration on the humdrum of everyday life, both the good and the ugly. Only Yesterday approaches it with such sincerity that it feels refreshing. Taeko learns to cherish her past, but not rely on it.
Extras on the Blu-ray are staggeringly impressive, given Only Yesterday’s age and relative obscurity. These include The Making of Only Yesterday, a 45-minute documentary that details the process of the film. Especially noteworthy is the emphasize on facial muscles to portray a realistic and honest feel to the characters and several voice recording sessions before animation is complete, a unique process for Japanese animation. The other is the complex relationship between Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, both masters of their field with plenty to offer in the realm of storytelling and animation. Throughout the documentary, the narrator pointedly emphasizes their odd dependence on each other: Miyazaki’s frustrating rivalry with Takahata is a constant occurrence, yet he has such unquestionable faith in the man to leave him to do his job.
Behind the Scenes With the Voice Cast is a short featurette with the English dub cast as they talk the usual jargon about Studio Ghibli’s creativity. Interview With the Dub Team offers more meat, specifically on how the film ended up not only getting a stateside release, but a full English dub as well. Interviews with producer Geoffrey Wexler reveal that the higher-ups consider it “undubbable,” which would flabbergast me if I didn’t know the average media outlet in the US rarely has women in mind as primary lead characters, let alone a slice-of-life coming-of-age story that would be largely dismissed as a chick flick at best. The featurette further explains the labor of love and the excruciating lengths the team went through to get this movie overseas. Foreign Trailers and TV spots are numerous Japanese trailers aired during the film’s release. The US Trailer is exactly what it is: promotional material for the dub. Feature-Length Storyboard is an option to watch the entire movie via storyboards.
Only Yesterday is an experience that can resonate strongly with its core audiences now as it did two-and-half decades ago when it was released. I watched this movie in my early twenties and it blew my mind, causing me to sit down and really analyze who I was in comparison to my prepubescent self. I’m now in my thirties, and repeated viewings have only made it better. I’m constantly discovering nuances and moments I never noticed or understood in earlier viewings. Only Yesterday is a commendable movie that gracefully portrays the self-examination of the average contemporary woman. It is honest and inspiring in its portrayal. It is a lens through cultural clashes and lifestyles between generations. Above all, it continuously influences me to rethink my life and how my past can serve as a guide to who I am now. Very rarely can I say a film hits me on such a personal level that it sends shivers down my spine, but Only Yesterday did. It is a movie I’ll be watching over and over as I get older.