In 1996, the Walt Disney Corporation struck a deal with Tokuma Publishing (holder of the rights to most of Studio Ghibli’s films) for worldwide distribution rights. Though some anime fans raised a hue and cry over what they feared would be the inevitable mutilation of some of the greatest animated films of all time (even though Disney’s contract with Tokuma specifically prohibited so much as a single frame of alteration) the deal has resulted in truly excellent US releases for much of Ghibli directors Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata’s oeuvre—except for one, which will never be released in this country.
Films like Spirited Away and My Neighbor Totoro—thanks in part to the excellent dubs Disney arranged for them—have since gone on to become part of film nerd canon. A more dedicated fan might even have sought out the DVDs for less-famous but also excellent works like Porco Rosso or Whisper of the Heart, which despite their relative obscurity in this country, received solid dubs and remain readily available.
But there is another—and though Disney holds the distribution rights, it will never be released here. It doesn’t command the kind of anime fan loyalty of some of Ghibli’s other films, so finding an illegal version to download is next to impossible. Your only recourse is to buy the Japanese DVD and have it shipped over, which is probably going to run you sixty or seventy bucks, all said. If you’ve got a region-free DVD player, you can then watch it—with English subtitles, even. But are you willing to drop seventy bucks on a cartoon movie you’ve never heard of?
Well, you should be, because Only Yesterday is an unassuming little piece that is nonetheless probably one of the greatest animated films ever made.
Directed by Isao Takahata1, Only Yesterday was released to theaters in Japan in 1991. There are no battles, no bad guys—no violence, no sex. It is a simple drama told from the perspective of Taeko, a 27-year-old unmarried office lady working in circa-1982 Tokyo.
Taeko has always, in her words, “longed for the countryside,” but her family has lived in Tokyo for generations. It’s only now that her sister has married the son of a family whose ancestral home is in rural Japan that Taeko has even the most tenuous connection to the countryside she longs for, and she is determined not to let it go to waste.
The film follows her trip to visit her brother-in-law’s family. Taeko’s sister and brother-in-law themselves have long-since abandoned the countryside life, but Taeko glories in it.
On the long train ride to her bucolic destination, though, Taeko is visited by memories of her fifth-grade schoolgirl self. The film’s structure begins to unfold in two directions—one in 1982 as Taeko lives and works on a family farm, and the other in 1966, as she recalls various episodes from her childhood in the Tokyo of the 1960s.
Only Yesterday is a triumph of art direction; the palettes for 1982 are vivid and saturated, while the 1966 of Taeko’s memory is represented with simpler character designs and faded colors—her recollections of the past are filtered through the impressionistic lens of memory. The transitions between the past and present are occasionally jarring by design; Taeko is struggling to reconcile her childhood self with the adult she’s become. The film depicts the landscape of rural Japan with fidelity that borders on the obsessive; I have been to these places, and you may take it from me: They look just like that.
Taeko’s internal conflict is subtle and nuanced; always a square peg in a round hole, her childhood seems to be a series of indignities and disappointments, with her adult life the result of a series of compromises she didn’t realize she was making. Her childhood disappointments and adult dilemmas are portrayed with both empathy and objectivity—we see Taeko’s disappointments, but we understand that the film does not pity her, and neither should we.
Resolutions do come, in the form of opportunities she has, in a sense, been preparing herself for her entire life. The final scenes of Yesterday are deeply moving and satisfying in their resolution of both the 1966 and 1982 conflicts; the film is a success on a purely structural level, though its pleasures go far beyond that.
A common refrain in anime fandom is that Japanese animation isn’t just for kids, but the reality is that a lot of it is for kids. Yesterday, however, demands significant emotional sophistication on the part of its viewers. It truly is for adults, simply because it takes a certain maturity to empathize with Taeko’s ambivalence about her own adulthood. This is not a story that movies of any kind often tell—but Yesterday tells it brilliantly.
And it’s too bad, too, because you’ll probably never get to see it. You see, one of the childhood flashback episodes concerns the day, in school, where the boys and girls are separated, and the girls are taught about menstruation. News of the contents of the lecture the girls received soon reaches the boys, and the usual awkward skirt-flipping and teasing ensues. It is my dark suspicion that Disney is unwilling to risk the possible backlash that might come with the release of a film that contains even the most abstract and clinical facts-of-life lesson. Frankly I find it hard to imagine Only Yesterday being popular enough to generate the kind of misguided moralistic outrage I suspect they fear, but who knows—maybe the Disney marketing mooks are right.
If they are, it’s a damn shame.
1Takahata’s other directorial efforts include Grave of the Fireflies and Pom Poko—which incidentally are also both easily obtainable in the US.