(If you missed it, check out my previous essay on Grave of the Fireflies too)
Only Yesterday is Isao Takahata’s eight film and second official Ghibli release. He worked on the film for around 15 months with the help of Studio Ghibli’s TopCraft animators and his go-to character designer and animation director Yoshifumi Kondo, and under the supervision of the film’s two main producers. The first of these was designated the General Producer. This role was taken by Miyazaki who needed something to do in-between projects while Takahata’s film took all of the studio’s resources. The second producer is the real money man on the project: one Toshio Suzuki.
In the seventies, Suzuki earned himself a position on the production committee board for publishing house Tokuma Shoten. As such, he was in a key position to lobby for the works of artists within the manga medium. But his job extended far beyond this level as Tokuma Shoten was the parent company for Daiei Motion Pictures, meaning that Suzuki had the ability to negotiate production numbers for animated and live-action features as well. In the early 1980s, Suzuki was a fan of the animated television series of Miyazaki and Takahata. With Suzuki’s help, Miyazaki’s long-form epic manga Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind was produced and released, as well as the feature length animated film version of the manga a few years later in 1984. Because of Suzuki’s adamant work on behalf of Miyazaki during this period, the film was created and was able to reach a large market, translate to tons of money for Miyazaki, which was then used to buyout Studio TopCraft and create Studio Ghibli.
Before his resignation from Tokuma Shoten in October 1989, Suzuki helped to produce Castle in the Sky, My Neighbor Totoro, Grave of the Fireflies, and Kiki’s Delivery Service, as well as the classic avant-garde OVA Angel’s Egg by Mamoru Oshii. Suzuki was appointed director of Studio Ghibli in 1990, then went on to direct every subsequent Ghibli film thereafter. Though he had a part in the production committees or as assistant producer on earlier Ghibli films, Only Yesterday was his first time working as the official producer.
Finally, Takahata’s musical collaboration for the film followed a theme he had been exploring for the last fifteen years and would continue to explore in the future with a new composer for each work. This time, the renowned Urusei Yatsura composer Katz Hoshi produced a unique score including folk music from Eastern European cultures like Bulgaria, Hungary and Romania, as well as more traditional Western European classical pieces, rounded out by a Japanese rendition of Bette Midler’s classic pop tune ‘The Rose.’ The resultant work shouldn’t hang together as well as it does in theory, but comes across as extremely emotionally effective and often poignant in practice, carrying on a Ghibli tradition of music that not only fits the themes and feelings of the story, but enhance them in the process. This allows for greater viewer connection with a film as a total product whose hole-lessness never drags one away from the viewing experience.
The story follows the 27-year old Taeko, a young woman who was born and raised in Tokyo by parents who were likewise born and raised there. She has rarely been to the countryside, but went to her sister’s husband’s family farm the year prior to help out in the Safflower harvest and has found a unique connection with nature and the people there that she does not ever experience in the city. The film recounts her second trip back to the farm to help out in the harvest, her ruminations and memories on her past (and specifically her time in the 5th grade as a 10-year old girl whose interest in boys and the countryside was just budding), and the emotional connections she makes to a farmer, Toshio, whilst there in the rural Yamagata prefecture.
We are shown vignettes of her times as a young girl visiting the famed bathhouses of Itami, the year of 1966 when the music of The Beatles first arrived in Japan and started a group music craze, the year when she tried her first pineapple (a fruit that is still extremely expensive to import to Japan and can be nearly 10,000 yen even today) and found it wanting. We see her develop a crush on a boy Hirota, while ignoring another less athletic boy Abe, while struggling with mathematics and developing a love of acting. All of these spectres of the past follow Taeko on her trip along the Takase line to the small town of Takase at the base of the volcanic Mount Zao.
Whereas the scenes taking place 1983 and showing the adult Taeko are animated with a hyper realistic focus (one animator even spent ten months practicing animating Safflowers just to get them perfect while others studied the facial expressions of the film’s voice actors for months on end to get the creases of the face correct), the scenes of Taeko as a young girl are shown with less complete backgrounds that fade to white around the edges of the screen. The figures and clothes and objects expressed in these reflective dream and daydream sequences often show heavy use of pastels and primary colors that are apparent in few of the more realistic scenes.
All in all, the attention to detail in animation and design, the color palates and artistic decisions, and the flow of the animation are all perfectly done. The final effect is a film more beautiful than any Takahata had made before and has made since, which comes to my mind as the most beautiful animated film ever made (though I recognize there is some subjective bias and personal taste involved in this designation).
For 15 years, the film was unavailable outside of Japan even though it held a perfect critical rating on many sites and was the number one film at the box office in Japan in 1991. In 2006, Turner Classic Movies aired the film on their cable platform. Later in the same year, the film was released to theaters in Germany, the U.K., and Australia. It would be another ten years before an English-language release of the film materialized and the film became widely available. I hope that you’ll check it out asap. Because the watch is well worth the wait.
[Next up: Pom Poko]