Only Yesterday is incredibly boring; Only Yesterday is incredibly captivating. Isao Takahata, Studio Ghibli’s co-founder and genius filmmaker, first released his wonderful ode to the rich complexities of a mundane existence back in 1991, but the picture failed to secure either a theatrical run or a home video release here in North America. No more, though: Only Yesterday opened in New York City on New Year’s Day and goes nationwide this Friday, so all Ghibli completionists and devotees can finally get the chance to see the film (and hear its English-language cast) for themselves on the big screen. For them, and anyone with even cursory admiration for the Ghibli name, the 25-year wait should be well worth it.
Only Yesterday does a lot of things, and it does all of them well. The film balances thoughts on everything from 1960s Beatlemania, to income inequality, to consumerism, to sexism against its overarching premise, which sounds banal to the point of tedium on paper but proves magnetic in practice. The film tells the story of Taeko Okajima in the past and present tense, flipping back and forth from memories of her childhood to her current state as an unsatisfied 20-something toiling away in Tokyo at a job she can only tolerate. At the movie’s onset, Taeko is going on holiday in Yamagata, where she plans to help out her brother-in-law’s family with the local safflower harvest. On her way to the countryside and even after she arrives, she constantly finds herself musing over flashbacks to her schoolgirl days in the 1960s.
As a girl, Taeko is voiced by Alison Fernandez. As a woman, she is voiced by Daisy Ridley, whose name is by now synonymous with Star Wars. Unsurprisingly, Ridley’s work here is quieter, smaller, and more muted than her work in The Force Awakens, but she is just as dazzling as she narrates her world through the filter of Takahata’s artistic lens. Takahata has made a rhythm-of-life movie with an accent all its own, though you can trace its cadence both back and forward through the years. The filmography of the great Yasujiro Ozu is an immediate influence on Only Yesterday, both in terms of its personal, familial scope and its idyllic backdrop: Late Spring, Tokyo Story and Floating Weeds in particular feel like immediate reference points here, but you can sense Ozu most, perhaps, in how deliberately Takahata structures Taeko’s journey. Only Yesterday is slow, but it is impeccably measured. Its two-hour running time doesn’t tick by as much as it stands majestically still.
Weirdly enough, as Takahata intertwines the rigors and uncertainties of Taeko’s adulthood with reminiscences of her youth, Only Yesterday starts to look an awful lot like the bedrock of Elizabeth Gilbert’s career, too. It’s less Eat, Pray, Love and more The Signature of All Things, sans the sexual frustration but with just as much time reserved for deep-dive botanical and horticultural discussion. But Takahata isn’t a dullard, and Only Yesterday doesn’t overly concern itself with the best practices for picking safflowers outside of establishing metaphors or expanding on themes. Like most of us, Taeko cannot escape her younger self, and she cannot help but fall into reverie after reverie, some lovely, some shockingly ugly. In either case, they look gorgeous. Takahata’s animation style bathes Taeko’s remembrances in white, lending each such scene a kind of recollective purity.
These moments are stunning in their austerity, and that quality suggests that when we remember our lives, we remember only what is necessary and what is most important: the sting of a parent’s slap, the indomitability of weeknight homework, the jovial laughter of a friend, the euphoria of early infatuation. A half hour into Only Yesterday, an appropriately awkward chat between Taeko and her schoolyard crush sends her into a literal flight of fancy as she soars through clouds rendered in soft, rubicund hues. This drives home an essential point about this film and every other Ghibli film—it is so damn beautiful to behold that it hurts—but more importantly it reinforces Takahata’s tendency to deploy story through his visuals. Ridley’s voiceovers buttress the imagery, but if you cut them entirely, Only Yesterday would still be just as easy to comprehend.
Such is the work of a master, though. By the time Only Yesterday opened in Japan, Takahata had already written and produced a handful of shorts and features with Hayao Miyazaki, and also directed Grave of the Fireflies, which today is widely accepted as one of the greatest war movies ever made. Only Yesterday doesn’t pack the same historical gut punch as its predecessor, but the film’s subtler impact is equally as affecting all the same. This is a movie about wants and wishes, expectations and disappointments, making peace with days gone by and facing our future. It is as vast as it is minute, and a testament to the timely, enduring power of Takahata’s cinema. Only Yesterday might be getting here a couple decades late, but it feels no less relevant or meaningful for the delay.
Director: Isao Takahata
Writer: Isao Takahata
Starring: Daisy Ridley, Alison Fernandez, Dev Patel
Release Date: February 26, 2016
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing online about film since 2009, and has been scribbling for Paste Magazine since 2013. He also contributes to Screen Rant, Movie Mezzanine, and Birth.Movies.Death. You can follow him on Twitter. He is composed of roughly 65 percent Vermont craft brews.