The poor box office of this film means it’s leaving on 3/16. In other words, you have tonight and Tuesday to catch this marvelous movie.
That the best movie out there right now is 25 years old is no great surprise, considering the time of year. Regardless, for reasons unknown to me, Isao Takahata’s magnificent Only Yesterday (1991) is only now getting a proper release in this country — and outfitted with a brand new (and very good) English-language soundtrack. When I settled in to watch this, I had no idea what to expect, and, in all honesty, it took a while for it to take hold of me. Frankly, this is one of those films that’s hard to judge — especially to judge the impact — until you’ve seen it all the way through once. Those of you who read the “Weekly Reeler” or listen to Jeff Messer’s radio show at 5 p.m. on Fridays know that I’ve been singing the praises of Only Yesterday already — and regretting not being able to get my review in print for its opening weekend. This is a very special film that deserves all the support it can get. I tend to think that review aggregation sites are one of the worst things ever to come down the pike, but this fully deserves its 100 percent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
Put in the simplest possible terms, this is nothing like your usual animated film — even your usual Studio Ghibli offering. There are no talking animals, no outrageous flights of fantasy. (The closest the film gets to this is a scene where our main character floats off in the blush of first love, or something like it.) Instead we get a drama of no little style and substance that moves back and forth between our main character, 27-year-old Taeko (Daisy Ridley), in the present (1982) and her memories of her childhood in 1966 and her “fifth grade self.” There are no great adventures. No kingdoms are at stake.
This is “merely” about real life. More specifically, it’s about how our past informs our present — the cross-references made clear by the shifting time frame — and about how the shared enthusiasms and experiences of that past serve to connect us to new people, e.g., the immediate bond over a shared favorite childhood TV show. It also touches on the regrets we carry with us and things that we wish we had handled better, or at least differently. (A 1966 sequence involving an impoverished boy is especially poignant in this regard.)
The film touches on everything from Beatlemania to Taeko’s incipient childhood romances, her desire to be an actress — and even getting her first period. Walt Disney would have keeled over at the idea of this being discussed in an animated film. But this is not really a film for children — at least not younger children. I say this not because I think anyone is likely to take offense at anything in Only Yesterday, merely because it requires a certain amount of life-experience for it to work.
Only Yesterday is structured around its 1982 framing story where Taeko is taking her vacation in the country on a farm owned by relatives. This is a place she has been in the past, and, in fact, the attentive young organic farmer Toshio (Dev Patel) remembers her, even though he’s the younger of the two. While their story — which is, yes, a love story — takes center stage in the latter portions of the film, what’s happening is a lot deeper with Taeko trying to find her place in the world — something she hasn’t really done in Tokyo.
The big thing to remember about Only Yesterday is that it is not a film in a hurry. I don’t mean it’s slow, but it’s perfectly content to move at a measured pace where even a digression about harvesting and drying safflowers to make rouge doesn’t disturb the flow. There’s something strangely soothing about the film that I find impossible to explain, except perhaps to note that its rural landscape is so beautifully achieved that it almost seems you can feel the summer breeze and smell the odors of nature. Even that doesn’t explain it, but I suspect you will understand if you see the film. And if you do, and you certainly should, go to Only Yesterday — you have to sit through the credits to see the actual end of the story. Rated PG for thematic elements, some rude behavior and smoking.