Legendary Japanese producers Studio Ghibli may have recently halted production of new animated features, but there’s still a lot to discover from delving into their back catalogue, as Only Yesterday demonstrates. Originally released in 1991, Isao Takahata’s film, based on the manga of the same name, only received an English dub this year, featuring the voices of Daisy Ridley and Dev Patel.
Set in 1982, the story sees 27-year-old Taeko (Ridley) take a break from her busy Tokyo job to visit distant relatives in the countryside. Here she meets Toshio (Patel), who left his office job to run an organic farm. As she helps out on the farm and bonds with Toshio, Taeko’s childhood memories are stirred, including her first crush, the chaos of the boys in her class discovering girls have periods, being frustrated by mucking up a fractions test, and, for some reason, the first time she ate pineapple.
The film takes a thoughtful tone, lingering on the details of Taeko’s nostalgia as her past informs her present and she begins to wonder whether she’s happy in her big city life. This allows the story to explore a range of themes, including the disparity between the countryside and the city (which any fans of Japanese cinema are probably experts on by now) and the role of women in Japanese society (though it could go further to challenge the sexism inherent in the importance of marriage). It also has a lot to say about organic farming processes. Well, Toshio does. It’s all he seems to talk about, and the film forgets to be subtle about this. Believable, emotional conversations are sometimes ruined when he butts in with a non-sequiter about organic farming.
Despite this, though, it’s a beautifully constructed movie. The animation is as gorgeous as you’d expect from a Ghibli movie, with equal attention paid to character design and expression as to the bustle of the city and the bright colours of the rural landscapes. Patel and Ridley, who’s experienced a much-deserved post-Force Awakens career boost, both give sensitive, charming performances, though it is a shame that Ridley unnecessarily puts on an American accent. In certain moments, such as when Taeko’s memory of falling for a boy at school turns into her imagining herself flying, all the film’s themes and stylistic quirks come together to create something truly captivating.
And the joy of Only Yesterday lies in these moments and the way they’re juxtaposed against perfectly captured normality. It may not be as iconic or fantastic as some of Ghibli’s better known efforts, and it may have a few too many factoids about organic farming, but it’s nonetheless an utterly remarkable story about the constant struggle to find your place in the world.
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ONLY YESTERDAY / CERT: PG / DIRECTOR & SCREENPLAY: ISAO TAKAHATA / STARRING: DAISY RIDLEY, DEV PATEL, ALISON FERNANDEZ / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW