Updated: Aug 19, 2019
*This is a review for the English dub of “Only Yesterday”*
Director Isao Takahata knew how to control any experiment he headed. In “My Neighbors the Yamadas,” he took a comic strip style and made a hilarious yet touching film about a dysfunctional family. With “Pom Poko,” he made a film about tanukis and how important their homestead is. With “Grave of the Fireflies,” he was able to devastate audiences everywhere with a tale of childhood poverty during wartime and the effects rippled through Japan and its residents. Takahata was indeed a filmmaker who could do it all. So it came as no surprise when he was able to capture such an intimate portrait of a young woman’s life in his 1991 film “Only Yesterday.”
“Only Yesterday” follows Taeko, a 27-year-old woman working in Tokyo, who decides to take a vacation in the countryside to help the family of her brother-in-law harvest safflowers. On her way there she remembers her life, doting on her time in fifth grade while wondering if she has been true to her younger self as an adult. She remembers her first brush with love, the embarrassment following the education her teacher gave her and her classmates about getting their period and being bad at math. She thinks about all of the aspirations she had and how she came to be where she is now.
The film perfectly balances Taeko’s time as a 10-year-old and her time as an adult. I never felt like one part of her life was drawn out too long. The time she spends in the countryside with Toshio and her being able to tell him about every memory popping into her head provides a healthy growing relationship as well. The film ultimately makes a smart choice to not focus on a romantic aspect until much later on in the movie. There are relationships Taeko has to bring a resolution to and to this film’s merit, she is able to come to every resolution she needs to quite beautifully.
The energy the two leads, Daisy Ridley and Dev Patel, bring to their roles makes the film believable. “Only Yesterday” is not a spectacle of a film. There are no giant castles or tanukis, which Studio Ghibli is known for. This is a grounded film and the actors know it. Ridley as Taeko is an absolute joy. The audience gets a genuine feel from her as a woman who is still trying to figure herself out. In one particular scene, Taeko is recalling a memory where a boy in her class shook the hands of everyone else goodbye at the end of his time at the school except hers. Ridley brings Taeko to life by making her sound regretful and somewhat disappointed with herself. The same scene highlights Patel as Toshiro, as he weighs in on what he thinks was going through the boy’s head at the time, while subtly weighing in his emotions towards Taeko. The true star of the film though is Alison Fernandez as Taeko’s younger self. She has the most fun out of everyone bringing this energetic girl to life. Whether it be the prospect of stardom, the pain of being hit by her father or the disappointment of feeling like she is not good enough by her sisters and mother, Fernandez gives her all to the role and gives the audience a truly authentic little girl.
“Only Yesterday” is a rare, touching film. The way the film goes about the idea of the retrospection being the most important part of one’s growth is beautiful in execution. For adults, the film will be impactful as it will force everyone to think about what they wanted as children and if it would make them happy now. Do those values make one regretful? This is what the movie is asking everyone to think about, and it worked perfectly.