I can’t think of a single logical reason why all films shouldn’t be animated. The Matrix Trilogy is so riddled with CGI it becomes Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children in all but soundtrack, and how often have I heard Babylon 5 and Legend of the Galactic Heroes mentioned in the same breath? More incredibly, when I consider shows like Gosenzo-sama Banbanzai, Paranoia Agent, and Masaaki Yuasa’s recent Yojouhan Shinwa Taikei, I realise that as a technique of film-making, animation offers far more versatility than live-action.
Nevertheless, surprisingly few animators attempt to beat live-action at its own game and challenge it for any claim it might have on realism. Perhaps because, traditionally, that’s just not what animation does. When Walt Disney defined the art in the 1930s using fairy tales, it became a means to create magic carpet rides, not to make viewers reflect on their own life journey - it was supposed to take you far, far away and not take you back. This is why Isao Takahata’s Only Yesterday is vital to our understanding of animation’s true worth. Only in animated form could this humble drama about self-actualisation still grab viewers by the heart strings and tug with disproportionate force.
By depicting a reality more vivid, more precise, and more truthful than what we see around us, Takahata teases out the happiest clichés from life’s kaleidoscope of banality and inconsequence. In fact, there are so many exquisitely packaged moments, I can barely choose. I like the flashback of protagonist Taeko’s family eating a pineapple for the first time. After many hours figuring out how it should be sliced, all members crowd around the table to watch mother perform the ceremony. This touching togetherness slides brilliantly into comic anticlimax as they chomp unhappily on flesh that turns out to be hard and not as sweet as the canned stuff. Another gorgeous event involves little Taeko falling in love with a boy called Hirota, who impresses her with his baseball skills. Their frustrated confession becomes a veritable treat of emotional honesty and conveys such an outstanding sense of pacing that even the slow, shy lowering of the head becomes a precious moment to savour.
Even the structure shows a frank sense of perspective thanks to the no-nonsense cuts between Taeko’s present and past. Child-Taeko’s 1960s world is soft and cocooned and adults often hover in the background like the sky - barely noticed walls of certainty. Family dynamics are soothingly traditional, involving a moral pillar father who reads newspapers at the table, a dutiful worrier of a housewife, and sisters who bicker like hens but clearly still love each other. And the closest we get to antagonism are these family squabbles set in Polaroid perfection.
Contrast that with adult-Taeko’s 1980s world of unrewarding thrift. We first witness her alienated existence in the city, where she works in a stuffy office full of busy people and the sound of industry churning away in the background, and her last tie to family is a telephone call from her mother nagging her about her unmarried status. This segues into the sentimental longing for the countryside later as Taeko escapes the city for some long-earned rest on a safflower farm. In dazzling contrast to the scenes of childhood, where everything is ripe with potential, adulthood brings a wistful tone of regret and tentative rediscovery.
Because of this dedication to diverging narratives, the scenes of the past and of the present develop an acute emotional disconnect. The flashbacks easily deliver the most memorable scenes, resulting in a mild anticlimax whenever the present reasserts itself. On the other hand, the present offers the only forward movement in story while the past lags in a constant stasis of sweet remembrance. At some point, viewers will wonder how Taeko’s collage of childhood experiences relates to her rediscovery of the countryside and her sense of self; the show, however, appears not just to leave the question hanging, but wholly oblivious to the fact that there might be a question at all. Part of this problem may come from the fact that child-Taeko was conceived of first in the manga Omohide Poroporo by Hotaru Okamoto and Yuko Tone, and Takahata’s anime adaptation added adult-Taeko’s events hoping for an overarching relevance. In reality, he seems to force the parts together without establishing any meaningful continuity, and the story loses some coherence as a result.
If Hayao Miyazaki makes sexy movies offered to the masses in the magic carpet ride tradition, then his partner Takahata creates classic beauties. They impress most when the audience takes the time to appreciate their quirks. Nonetheless, Only Yesterday pushes Takahata’s homely style furthest to the edge with children who look sweetly amorphous and adults who reveal an ugly animation first: facial muscles. Taeko’s exaggerated cheekbones never fail to pop and shudder across her face as though she had swallowed a pair of live beetles. I find them distracting dramas of their own, capturing what should be the voice actress Miki Imai’s cutest features and turning them into glaring plastic accessories. Certainly, that particular detail speaks of the technical prowess more than the inherent beauty of the show.
And oh there is beauty! Child-Taeko frolics in soft watercolour backgrounds that depict a world in perpetual daytime. In plenty of shots, the corners of each frame fade into soft focus. There are also adorable moments of fantasy to capture her subjective state, such as her flying through the air after falling in love for the first time or her eyes morphing into giant ‘Kimba’ orbs as she imagines becoming a famous actress. In contrast, adult-Taeko occupies a distinctly mechanical world defined by cars, trains, and electric fans, with plenty of scenes at night and starker backgrounds. Only Yesterday makes full use of animation’s ability to render environments more expressive than the characters: to grasp a mood, look not into the eyes of the person in the foreground, but to the subtle play of light or the spaces around them.
The movie also shows a healthy fondness for soundlessness, allowing its art and atmosphere to do much of the talking. Here, someone’s unspoken embarrassment is as poignant as the most heartfelt apology.
Otherwise natural sounds combine with playful piano music and string instrumentals for a delicate accompaniment. At its most distinctive, the soundtrack offers a Japanese language version of ‘The Rose’, a song that holds its own sentimental value for me.
Taeko is not a character to fall wildly in love with, but I find her history utterly identifiable. At first we dissect her socialisation and psychological makeup, all executed with mesmerising detail; afterwards, we sit back and savour her wholesomeness and completeness as a personality both in the past and the present. To describe Taeko is to describe any modern woman, but the keen powers of observation Takahata employs to develop her into someone universal is truly astonishing.
Again, though, the parallel narratives create a fissure between child-Taeko and adult-Taeko. Each is a triumph of characterisation but we see none of the development from one to the other. For instance, we notice that none of the stubborn spirit she had as a child remains when she is an adult, which is believable enough. People change, after all. But when Only Yesterday makes minimal attempts to explain why, a mild dissatisfaction niggles at the mind.
Only Yesterday could have been a live-action movie but that would have resulted in something utterly trite and unmoving. As an animation, however, it succeeds in bringing reality to a profound climax. Furthermore, while much anime seems an overbearing addition of gimmicks, noise, graphics, and other junk that has no real-world relevance, Only Yesterday is about stripping these things away. With the most minimalist backgrounds, Takahata ascribes a nuance and mood to the milieu that sucks us in: the sky is not just a sky, flowers are not just flowers, and memories are not just memories, but perfectly arranged foils of our lives. To love this show, appreciate not its story but its form.
Taeko Okajima lives a nondescript life in Tokyo performing office duties in the day and then coming home in the evening to listen to her mother’s remarks on the phone about her unmarried status. In a bid to escape the monotony, Taeko decides to visit the countryside she once loved as a child and spend time on a safflower farm run by relations of hers. But her journey awakens memories she thought she had long abandoned, and Taeko must once again decide the kind of person she truly wants to be.
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