Japan is a powerhouse in the animation world, and Studio Ghibli stands above them all. Like Pixar, Ghibli has elevated its medium with one extraordinary film after another. Their films have ranged from cult classics (My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki’s Delivery Service) to masterpieces (Grave of the Fireflies, Spirited Away). Co-founder Isao Takahata delivers worthy addition with Only Yesterday, a meditative journey of self-discovery. A forgotten film from 1991, Only Yesterday enchants with the richly detailed animation, patient storytelling and complex morality Studio Ghibli’s known for.
Taeko (voiced by Daisy Ripley) is an adventurous young woman ready for a 10 day holiday from her dreary nine to five job. While her sisters’ idea of a holiday involves a fancy hotel, she’d rather travel to the countryside, working in the rice fields. This year, she’ll spend her holiday in a village picking safflowers. There, she finds more sense of fulfillment that she gets in her job. She also bonds with the locals, especially Toshio (Dev Patel) an old friend from long ago. But as the holiday comes to a close, she finds herself asking what she wants from life.
Throughout the film, Taeko flashes back to her childhood. Here, we see her previous daily lives with her parents (Matthew Yang King and Grey DeLisle) and her sisters the brainy Yaeko (Ashley Eckstein) and Beatles-obsessed Nanako (Laura Bailey). We also see her elementary school years with her friends, including fussbudget Tsuneko (Hope Levy) and the awkward Rie (Madeleine Rose Yen). These moments capture perfectly those moments everyone remembers, from the petty arguments over school lunches to the first crush. It also captures the most awkward moments, especially when Rie gets her period. Most of all, these flashbacks provide some of the funniest moments including when the boys torment the girls over periods despite having no clue what they are.
From the moment Taeko arrives in the countryside, you can’t help but be at awe at the beautiful rural farms surrounded by mountains. Japanese Anime almost always delivers extraordinary animation and Ghibli lives up to that expectation. The environment’s drawn with an intricate attention to detail. Even when Taeko’s just sitting by a train window, everything’s drawn with beautiful realism. They share the same detail with the character movements and expressions. Ghibli avoids the over the top, cartoony reactions of other anime in favor of subtle facial expressions, which also applies to the movement. Even when a character’s just cutting a pineapple, his/her movement’s drawn with intricate, realistic care.
Though Ghibli’s animation is always extraordinary, Takahata always wants to take it a step further, using artistic style to further the story. In his recent Oscar nominate film The Tale of The Princess Kaguya, he designs the film to look like an ancient Japanese painting come to life. When the Princess is in a moment of despair, the animation takes on a rough, sketchy look. In this film, he contrasts the art styles of the present and past. While the present is drawn in full details, the past is drawn with the skies and backgrounds faded away. He keeps the scenes grounded in reality, so when he does something stylish, it’s unforgettable. It especially true when Taeko gets her first kiss. As she walks away, she starts floating in midair.
With retirement of anime legend and co-founder Hayao Miyazaki in 2014, Studio Ghibli has been in hiatus trying to figure out what to do. Hopefully, it will get back on its feet soon. For now, we are lucky to have the rerelease of Only Yesterday, a worthy addition to their collection of animated masterpieces.