Isao Takahata’s Only Yesterday uses the trappings of the family melodrama to reveal the subtle social constraints that inhibit people, particularly women, from attaining full self-realization. Taeko (voiced by Miki Imai), a 27-year-old office worker living in Tokyo, takes a vacation to the Japanese countryside that triggers a series of childhood memories. This Proustian journey into her adolescence is layered over her excursion to the country, as past and present eventually blend into one psychosomatic hyper-reality that allows her to acknowledge the minor traumas of her youth as a way of conquering her neuroses and finding some measure of psychic balance.
Taeko’s narration of her own physical and mnemonic journey becomes a kind of talking cure, a way of accessing her buried pain in an effort to release her from the pathological cycle of self-repression that’s prevented her from fully immersing herself in human relationships and other means of self-fulfillment. This complex, fully-rendered heroine is both deeply vulnerable and extremely resilient, kind and gentle, yet she exhibits vast reserves of inner strength, at once a perfect example of Studio Ghibli’s didactic commitment to privileging three-dimensional female leads and a pointed condemnation of the lack thereof in similar children’s films from the West.
Without resorting to tawdry sentimentality or mean-spiritedness, Takahata uses Taeko’s experience as a means to explore larger psychological issues in contemporary Japanese society. Released in 1991, Only Yesterday could be read as a response to the country’s catastrophic economic recession of the early 1990s, addressing the disappointed socioeconomic dreams of the Japanese middle class, whose promises of prosperity evaporated overnight when one of the biggest financial bubbles in history burst right under their feet. Like Tokyo Story, the film uses an example of personal disappointment as a synecdoche for the nation’s psychological discombobulation in the wake of a crisis that shook Japanese culture to its core.
Beneath its veneer of gentle nostalgia, Only Yesterday reveals elements of bitter, violent pain. In flashbacks to Taeko’s early teens, mild frustrations such as having to spend the summer in the city while her friends leave for their country houses eventually escalate into scenes of physical and psychological distress. Her previously tolerated whims are suddenly punished with a sharp slap to the face from her father, while her initial forays into the world of art and theater are destroyed by her parents’ complacent philistinism.
Taeko’s emotional responses to these traumatic occurrences, as well as to joyful ones, are rendered in dreamlike flights of fancy that depict her psychological state in a manner that animation is especially adept at facilitating. Like Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies, and unlike most Studio Ghibli productions, Only Yesterday is set in a completely realistic setting, yet its brief moments of surreal diversion add to its psychological realism for emanating in such an emotionally honest manner from personal experience.
During her vacation in the country, Taeko forms a tentative romance with a family acquaintance, Toshio (Toshirô Yanagiba), whose family harvests a flower used to produce clothing dye. During their courtship, they tellingly quote the Japanese Zen poet Matsuo Bashō to one another: “In time whose skin will it grace, this crimson flower?” Takahata connects Taeko’s attainment of psychological harmony via romantic love with her growing understanding of the importance of the natural world, represented by the material and metaphysical significance of the flower in her new world. The use of the ethereal Hungarian folk songs of Márta Sebestyén also add to this idea of nature as a site of psychic and emotional catharsis, whose visual apex comes in a scene depicting flower-pickers communing with the sun at daybreak, capturing the almost holy simplicity and humble ecstasy of their way of life.
Only Yesterday’s ecological message is both passionate and complex, celebrating humans’ communion with nature while recognizing the fundamental artificially of the latter, which is always reshaped by humanity in such encounters. In tying together these various psychological, ecological, economic, and sociopolitical resonances in a film about a young woman’s journey toward romantic fulfillment, Takahata creates a work that transcends its generic and cultural trappings to say something vitally basic about the transience of life’s small disappointments and redemptions.