Don’t cry… it was Only Yesterday

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In a very profound way, our memories define who we are; their sudden recollection can be empowering or haunting, yet we can’t control what we remember or the sudden feelings they conjure inside. The emotions we feel at these times, the memories we recall; they are often so insignificant, not our greatest successes or even our worst failures, but random chinks of light from childhood, the foolish interactions, smiling faces and feelings from years past that now seem so free and exciting… But times change, and we can’t be kids forever. I suspect at some point we all struggle to let go of those confused and nostalgic echoes, that innocence and naivety seems so appealing now, but fact is that this was all yesterday, and life moves on.

The poignantly named “Only Yesterday” follows the introspective Taeko, a single Japanese woman at the “not really anywhere” age of 27. Constantly being hassled about getting married and rapidly losing her time to a desk-bound job in Tokyo, she takes a holiday from her busy city-life and retreats to the quiet Japanese countryside, a peaceful alternative to the constant hustle and bustle of Tokyo’s concrete jungle. This break from the daily grind allows her time for reflection, to bathe in memory and realise a life caught in the past.

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Through-out the film we dip in and out of Taeko’s childhood as she regales us with tales of her school days. All the usual bases are covered as adolescent crushes and burgeoning puberty result in a stormy relationship with the family at home. It soon becomes apparent that Taeko’s having trouble letting go of the past, escaping into memories to avoid her adult life, not in the sense that she’s utterly dejected with the way things have turned out, but there’s no spark left, no adventure.

Aren’t we all fated to do something special with our lives? Or rather, have we already failed at living the dream? Taeko’s caught in the world of yesterday, haunted by ephemeral moments that symbolise a missed opportunity and explain away her indifference to “normal” life; she is still lamenting missing her big chance of being the “star” actress in a local play because her reserved father wouldn’t allow it, still feeling the insecurity of over-hearing her worried mother complaining that “Taeko isn’t normal” and still wondering why the grubby boy sitting next to her in class would shake everyone’s hand but hers.

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“Only Yesterday” is a deeply human story about letting go of the past (“You’re Gonna Carry That Weight.“) and being brave enough to embrace an unknown future, risking your apathetic life-style for what is ultimately a shot at real happiness. It resonates beautifully because it’s something we all face sooner or later, a nostalgic (even subconscious) decision that boils down whether we take the easy way out or forge ahead and chase our dreams.

Author: bateszi

A huge bloody nerd. I apologise in advance. I live in Cambridge, England. That's not an excuse, by the way.

12 thoughts on “Don’t cry… it was Only Yesterday”

  1. Only Yesterday always looked a bit odd in the Ghibli collection you see in the shops (stationed next to the other ‘normal one’, Grave of the Fireflies), but your synopsis makes it sound quite appealing. I should always presume the quality of a Ghibli film… yet this one never caught my eye until now. Nicely written!

  2. This is really ironic but I actually just watched Only Yesterday for the first time today. It was one of those movies I always wanted to see but I had a hard time finding it because it is not licensed in the states. I guess it is really good timing that you did a review on the same day.

    Anyways this movie was worth the wait, I loved it. I think it’s because it was very easy to identify with Taeko. I think we all feel nostalgic for our childhood. And the message of the movie is something that is just as important for adults as it is for children. Even as an adult you still have chances in life to pursue your dreams.

    I also love how the countryside is portrayed in Ghibli films such as in this movie and in Totoro.

  3. Maybe because I’ve hit my mid 20s with the nostalgic and “where to go next?” feelings that go with that time of life, this movie really resonated with me. That and the fact that it’s such a beautiful portrayal of the ‘realistic fiction’ genre (aka slice of life) with all the Ghibli watercolour prettiness that the director had at his disposal. Unusually, it seems to have a young adult (as opposed to a child’s) audience in mind, which may make it less of a commercial success but at the same time all the more relevant to the likes of us, who have at least partly grown out of the fantastical fare and can appreciate a more realistic kind of movie. Ghibli need to make more movies intended for this demographic, because if this effort is anything to go by they can make an equally fine job of it as they can with the ‘family-friendly’ type they’re famous for.

    Anyway, I’m glad you enjoyed it…I could go on for ages about my favourite aspects so I’ll say that it’s an underrated movie that needs wider publicity and leave it there for now. :)

  4. @Hige: Cheers. Both this and GotF were directed by Isao Takahata. Hayao Miyazaki may be the face of Studio Ghibli, yet ironically, those two aforementioned films are clearly better than anything he has created (I’m yet to see “Whisper of the Heart”, which I’ve heard is fantastic too). And I love Miyazaki’s movies, but Only Yesterday really felt like it was resonating with my soul\spirit\self. If I had to compare it with something, it’s somewhere in between Takemoto’s journey in “Honey & Clover” and the nostalgia\surrealism of Millenium Actress.

    @Kim: That is a really scary coincidence. I picked it up on a whim this weekend after I read how the main character was at the “”not really anywhere” age of 27″, I’m 24 so I can really empathize with that confusion about\lack of direction in her life. You grow up, come through education, join a full-time job and then… that’s it, the rest is totally down to you. Much like Taeko, I suppose you could say I’m still struggling to find something to really drive at.

    And yup to the portrayal of the country-side, the whole back-drop was so relaxing and cathartic, it’s really no wonder Taeko’s so attracted to just stopping everything and moving out there.

    @Martin: I can only agree… Though I thought I’d mention one of my favorite scenes was when the whole family sat around their table trying to work out how to eat a pineapple, only to find they didn’t like how it tasted after all. It’s wonderfully portrayed how they are so awe-struck by what is to us a rather conventional fruit… The look on Taeko’s face while she’s eating it is priceless; a combination of disappointment and determination! :)

    And incidentally, I read on the Wikipedia article it actually did well at Japanese theaters, but Disney haven’t released in the US (so no English dub either). It’s actually classed as josei (young adult female) anime – which going by the likes of this and “Honey & Clover”, is one of the most daring and creative genres in Japanese anime and isn’t afraid to tackle unconventional material.

  5. Oooh, you’ve got me hooked. I’ve been looking for something like this and “Only Yesterday”, even the title, is perfect. Me go download and watch. Thanks for another great movie! =D!

  6. God I absolutoly loved this movie, I remember feeling genuine happiness when Taeko was on the train at the end and all the kids from her past were urging her to go back, great movie.
    Honoustly one of my favourite animes.

  7. I watched this movie way back when. I think it was about 5 years, when everyone used to watch their shows using the VHS. lol I wasn’t too fond of it back then since it was kind of slow. But now watching all the new shows airing as we speak(comment hah!) I think this is the kind of movie thats lacking in today’s anime movie market. The library is just populated with so many mediocre fantasy movies that try to miserably mimic ghibli. I have a feeling if I watch it now I’ll enjoy it tons more. Thats what age does to you at least, it would make me appreciate the small things in Only Yesterday that impact Taeko as she grows up in this nostalgic trip through time.

  8. @Ivy: I can definitely say you’ll like Only Yesterday a lot more now that you’re a little older. I’m the same in those regards, I definitely wouldn’t have seen much in this had I watched it as the action hungry 16 year old I used to be. It’s very slow and deliberate, totally immerses you in the intricacy of Takeo’s feelings… Patience from the viewer is important.

  9. Mmm, I have to confess that when I saw Only Yesterday years ago (at that oh-so-awesome complete Ghibli retrospective at the Barbican some five or six years ago) I didn’t really like it.

    I remember simply thinking it was Whisper of the Heart without any of the magic. I do remember the childhood scenes being interesting – such as the fuss caused when Taeko doesn’t take her shoes off (or was it her socks?) – but the modern pieces didn’t do much for me. I do wonder if, now, all these years, I’ll think differently of the movie.

  10. yo bateszi im here for my mandatory recommendation: Baccano and romeo X Juliet

    in regards to Baccano i cant write much all i can say is:
    baccano is incredible.
    baccano is awesome.
    baccano is original.
    baccano is fantastic.
    baccano is baccano.

    i just saw romeo and juliet. wow… thanks to “anonymous” for subbing that last episode. i am truly grateful. what a phenomenal show. absolutely incredible. i am in awe. i am content. rxj is truly a show that should be marathoned. i am glad i waited till all the subs came out. thank u gonzo. thank u.

    cannot recommend it enough.

    funny thing tho rXj last episode wasnt on tokyotosh or bakaupdates. it was on isohunt and torrentspy. wonder why.

  11. I have only discovered these films after searching for years to find a english dubbed version of Spirited Away, Now I have seen that and Grave of the fireflies and now this one “Only Yesterday” and I can’t stop crying… happyness, it’s a lovely film even with subs. I also loved My Neighbor Totoro.

    Only Yesterday & the others are so brilllant I have to watch the end again and again… and cry and cry… in happiness.

    Sad maybe but it’s just brill, and i’m 34.

    I have Whisper of the heart to watch next…

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