Memories Trickle Down

Film: Only Yesterday
Year: 1991
Director: Isao Takahata (also writer)

Ben: “O, how many ways can you make a young American boy weep?”
Japan: “Lots!”

Across his three decades as co-captain of the legendary (though presumably deactivated) Studio Ghibli, the exalted (though presumably retired) Isao Takahata directed only five features of his own. (Presumably. Maybe another might hopefully could be waiting in secret, à la the new Tribe Called Quest record? Don’t quote me.) Among these, he has been behind the two lone Ghibli flicks to claim uncontested approval on the Rotten Tomatoes review aggregator: 2013’s stunning folktale adaptation The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, and the contemporary drama Only Yesterday from 1991. Assuming we want to take the word of those few critics who turned their thumbs down to Hayao Miyazaki’s best films and Takahata’s unspeakable Grave of the Fireflies, this is pretty much a decidedly good movie.

It is interesting that such an objective conclusion can be reached over a film about memory—one that relies on a certain subjectivity to achieve its ends. The story follows a 27-year-old office bee named Taeko (Miki Imai; or, in the recent English dub, Star Wars VII’s Daisy Ridley), who is unmarried, coy, and ever more prone to reminiscing on her youth in Tokyo as she travels out to the country to visit her sister’s in-laws. As the original title, Omoide Poro Poro, reads in translation, “memories trickle down”: the longer Taeko spends helping with the safflower harvest and admiring the bucolic landscape, the more nostalgic she becomes for her fifth-grade days—the highs and lows of schoolwork, puberty, siblinghood—and the more these memories influence her relations with her kind-hearted hosts.

Unlike his cohorts at Ghibli, Takahata is not and never has been an animator. He has worked as a producer, writer, music director, and probably everything else, but tends to leave the drawing to his team of gifted Ghiblites. Yet, he has earned his rank as one of the great talents in animation because he understands the art as well as any practitioner. He crafts Only Yesterday in two distinct styles: the contemporary scenes boast full, lush detail, with thought invested in every trickle of rain and every shade of sunlight; the 1966 scenes, Taeko’s reflections, are simpler, the colors more muted, everything calmed by the gentle fugue of memory. Sometimes entire swaths of scenery are left out, an off-white blank in their place. This is the film’s secret weapon. Takahata and company at once acknowledge the sort of fish-eye framing that applies to and edits our memories, and invite us to join the hero in reminiscing. I found myself filling in the empty spaces of the cels, as well as the story, with locations and figures from my own recollection. Taeko, an individual who is virtually my opposite on paper, became the surveyor of my memory. It is a profound technique, executed handsomely.

As is often the case with Ghibli’s output, ecology and the environment are prominent themes in Only Yesterday. However, the perspective offered here is far removed from the Braveheart-scale environmentalism of, say, Ponyo or Princess Mononoke. (Even Takahata’s next work, Pom Poko, features a pack of bacchanalian, shape-shifting tanuki who wage a disorganized resistance to Tokyo’s suburban expansion.) In one of the movie’s most striking scenes, Taeko is told by her new friend Toshio that what she sees as “nature” is really no more untouched by civilization than the city skyline: the rural landscape, down to every woodland and stream, has been cultivated as part of the agricultural development of the country. Rather than a division between urban and pristine, Toshio believes in mankind’s intimate (and current) symbiosis with the land. The film’s opening shot—the exterior of Taeko’s office building, its panoply of windows brilliantly reflecting the sky—visualizes Taeko’s overpowering gravitation toward nature, without condemning the metropolitan trappings from which she flees; picture an optimistic About Schmidt intro.

In perhaps a similar way, Taeko’s memories of childhood form a lens through which she can view her life in the present. This relationship, however, must be ended before reflection turns to rumination, and the decisions and revelations Taeko comes to make are the movie’s narrative pay-off. From the studio known above all others for wonder and enlightenment, Only Yesterday is not an entry to be missed. Fingers crossed that Takahata isn’t out of the race yet.

p.s. In regards to the weeping, the film’s closing theme is a Japanese-language cover of “The Rose.” How is that even fair?

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