Anime Review: Only Yesterday (1991)

TL;DR – A city woman reflects on her childhood and contemplates becoming a farmer’s wife.

Review (warning: spoilers)

Twenty-seven year old Taeko lives and works in Tokyo. When she takes time off from work she don’t travel overseas. Instead, she travels to the countryside and works on an organic farm owned by her sister’s in-laws.

Her latest trip triggers memories of her ten-year old self and the trials and tribulations she faced in grade five. This included growing up in a family with two older sisters who seemed to support her but also passive aggressively put her down, a stoic father who never showed affection (or emotion for that matter), and a mother who she could never seem to please.

Taeko reflects on her childhood while navigating what she is really wanting out of life. It’s obvious that she seeks fulfillment, but she is unsure what shape or form that will take. She discovers more and more a connection to farm life, and how it contrasts with her life in the big city. She also meets her brother-in-law’s second cousin, Toshio, on the farm, and they develop a subtle connection that draws them closer.

Only Yesterday is an animated film from Studio Ghibli that painstakingly focuses on the little things. There are no major action sequences, no fantastical scenes like in other Ghibli films such as Spirited Away or Tonari no Totoro, and no inciting incidents that drive some sort of mystery. There is one scene that is artfully fantastical when a young Taeko falls in love with a popular boy who plays baseball at her school, but that’s it.

I would argue it is not even a slow burn film. Slow burn films usually build up to some sort of shocking climax, and Only Yesterday doesn’t even do that. It is a story about life where the animation beautifully captures simple things from picking safflower blossoms to make dye and cosmetic rouge to driving through a storm with window wipers wiping the rain from the windscreen. Conversations and introspection are lengthy. The most shocking incidents captured in long replays of Taeko’s childhood.

And this is the crux of the film. It is Taeko’s childhood that has made her the adult that she is. Her outlook arguably has been squashed into a small space unknowingly by her upbringing. The conflicts with her parents and sisters demonstrating a battle that her family has with their own inner demons is contrasted by her experiences with classmates and growing up in a time when the Beatles were the biggest thing in the world and sex education was very much restrained. In fact, for an anime, Only Yesterday explores topics such as wealth, puberty, bullying and isolation in a way that you would rarely find in any animated film. For example, one flashback all the girls in the school are brought together to be taught about getting periods and the onset of puberty. This causes all sorts of theories and juvenile reactions from the boys in the school. It is poignant in both a funny and sad way.

Which sums up the life of Taeko and the lives all people live. The human nature of happiness and sadness is integral to the lives we live. Taeko’s is one that demonstrates what it means to be human in full without any fairytale premise or exaggerated acts of tragedy.

This film won’t be for everyone. Some may think it’s not a film about anything but that would be missing the point. For in life, it is often the smallest moments that make you realise what is most important in your life.

8 out of 10

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