Only Yesterday’s opening images resonate with me because of their sheer familiarity. The reflections of urban life in a skyscraper. Office buildings with desks, computers, copy machines. All those necessities of the modern working world. This is the personification of the status quo that many of us are used to, not simply in a place like Tokyo in the 1980s, but all over the world even right now. Many of us know that life intimately. It’s the first of innumerable moments where Only Yesterday will provide instances of immediate recognition.
From what I gather, Only Yesterday redefined what anime was capable of and really what was considered appropriate subject matter for the medium. This is not only a children’s film though it looks back at adolescence. It’s equally a film for adults and a female audience with its narrative fluidly cycling between childhood memories and current recollections; the point of view belongs to a single independent working woman named Taeko.
These are the two distinct time frames that Isao Takahata’s film works within. In 1966 Taeko was just a girl. And it’s true that all those remembrances of childhood only exist as wisps of their former clarity. Visually the flashbacks are composed of minimalist watercolor backgrounds that manage to capture the transient nature and washed out qualities of our memories. Often recalled fondly but never captured with the same vibrancy that we had in the moment.
And the mystery of the mind is that it can so quickly recall a moment based on a time, a place, a person, a thing, or for no particular reason at all. It could be a vacation floating in the baths of Atami. The novelty and the ultimate letdown of a pineapple not yet ripe. But there are cultural recollections too like the Beatles exploding at Budokan or your older sisters sporting miniskirts as members of the emerging pop culture generation.
Meanwhile, school life is full of your typical scenarios including landmark decisions about hall monitors chasing offenders through the hallways. Young romance is awkward and innocent, blooming around a baseball diamond.
After a single injudicious conversation, talk of periods blows up all across school with the subject becoming the boys’ new favorite point of humor. Taeko also shows off her talents as “Village Child A” in the school play, finding ways to extend her performance and make something out of nothing. She simultaneously looks to commit death by fractions. I must say that I relate. I never did like fractions.
Further still, there are sisterly tiffs over enamel hand bags and altercations with fathers who are normally calm and distant but in a single moment lash out in anger. They are the type of incidences that remain emblazoned on your mind. Meanwhile, mothers scold and chide their children.
But the true fascination in these events come in the very fact that once more they are tied to the present and lay the foundation for who Taeko is. The same can be said for each and every one of us. However, in 1982 she is now a young working professional. Still, unmarried and quite content with that aspect of her existence even as she bonds with her distant cousin Toshio.
Her aspirations are to spend more time in the countryside — a countryside blessed with tranquility and gorgeous panoramas — situated in sharp contrast to her life in Tokyo. Because it is in the said countryside where she begins to find a life that somehow feels far more fulfilling. The work and the living are simple but the people are kind and it somehow feels more purposeful. It’s also a prime environment to gather yourself and reflect on life.
Only Yesterday exhibits truly breathtaking imagery that captures both the minutiae and the exquisite scenery of Japan with this fascinating mode of realism. It is only improved upon by the fact that it is a drawn world capable of gravity-defying feats that nevertheless personify authentic emotions. And yet it fits the film on the whole because this is a story that seems to find a rooted contentment in what we would term the mundane. As this is a film that evokes memory, it’s fitting that such a thing would be so.
One of the great mysteries of the world even today is that it’s these very things that are most meaningful to us as human beings. Sure, we remember the big life events but oftentimes equally important are the other times. Because what is life if not a series of small incremental events connected together through experience, jubilation, sadness, wistfulness, pain, and contentment? Each of us carves out a road for ourselves that cuts through the past to the present to a future that we have yet to discover.
The original Japanese title translated is “memories come tumbling down” and somehow that resonates with me far more, being the nostalgic person that I am. It’s true. Certain memories will always be attached to a distinct time and place. Some good, some bad, but all a single element in this patchwork of life. Here is a film that deftly navigates the past and the present through various fragments, assembling the shards into a story that derives satisfaction in all its diversions. Taeko is able to get nearer to the life that she longs for. In that respect, Only Yesterday is in one sense an enchanting film but also a sincerely fulfilling exploration of humanity.