To me, there’s always been something so tender about Studio Ghibli movies. This can be attributed to a few things: the color palettes, the pacing, the hand-drawn, warmly-crafted stories. It all contributes to what can ultimately be called cinema at its most intimate, drawing readers into narratives that are captivating and scenic and breathtakingly human. This film is no exception. Director Isao Takahata takes us all on a trip down memory lane as Taeko Okajima escapes Tokyo’s city life for the holidays, working in the safflower harvests of Japan’s countryside. While there, she begins to recall childhood memories, and wonders if her stress-filled adult life is what her younger self would have wanted. It’s a beautiful meditation on time, family, identity and class, making it an easy choice for Stream of the Week.
I’m a huge fan of the way this film looks. There’re some expressionist moments that really help convey the way Taeko sees the world as a child. It places audiences not just in her mind, but also in our own. For a few brief moments, we’re reminded of family dinners around the table, or the embarrassment of our first crush. Some of the animation verges on resembling a watercolor painting, with the color palette never going too bold or brash, evoking a sense of vulnerability. This really emphasizes the few moments where color does strike us, such as Taeko constantly wearing red in her childhood, or when she’s surrounded by bright safflowers in her later years. To me, this use of color really reflects the themes of the film. The way Taeko's life literally becomes less colorful reflects how, somewhere along the way, she’s lost part of herself. She’s no longer burning with life, and we can't blame her. Focused on work, Taeko seems so caught up in the rat race that she's disconnected from those around her. While it’s beautiful to see her work through these issues, I do think it’s worth talking about how Taeko’s self-actualization is realized when she encounters romance.
Single-city-girl-meets-country-boy-who-teaches-her-about-life sounds like the conservative plot of any Hallmark movie, but I think Takahata navigates these waters as well as one possible could in the 1990s. Despite its potential heteronormativity, the love story that grows between Taeko and Toshio once she’s in the countryside doesn’t feel like Toshio is necessary for her ultimate decision to commit to farm life. Her contemplations begin long before she even meets Toshio, and the amount of screen time he’s given, along with how much other aspects of Taeko’s life we’re shown, make it clear that her inner journey isn’t solely centered around him. That being said, I think Takahata also captures the importance of love: for one's self, and romantically. It can be something that drastically changes the way we look at the world. It might not totally alter our life’s course, not by itself, but it can be the one of many steps toward a big change in how we live and interact with the world.
It’s a sweet, emotional, meditative look at a host of themes that any adult is guaranteed to find relatable. Much like My Neighbor Totoro (1988), I think this offering from one of Japan’s greatest animation studios is a reminder to never lose sight of ourselves, despite how hard that can be under capitalism. We’re pushed to always think about the next task, the next promotion or the next thing we’re going to buy. Amidst such nihilistic superficiality, Only Yesterday says that we should live in the present, appreciate nature and find community with those who nourish our inner-lives. I think it’s a beautiful, charming and important message. Stream this NOW on HBO Max!