Taeko is a hard working woman single who lives in Tokyo, and she decides to go on Vacation. Unlike where most people go on their vacation, as well as her family and work colleagues, she wants to go to the countryside and stay with a farming family, doing farm work like she always wanted to try since she was a child. While on her journey and her stay there, she revisits her past memories of the moments in her life when she was ten years old, and thinks about what they could mean for her now and her future. She also builds a relationship with a farmer named Toshio, who (in a way) helps her understand the meanings of her past, and makes her wonder where her life may lead too.
Kiki’s Delivery Service was a massive multiple award winning success, which was a great news to the whole company, as they needed money to help train animators and improve the work environment and system of Studio Ghibli. Miyazaki originally had problems of coming up with a story for this film, since the original manga that it was being adapted from was a compilation of short stories about the experiences as a young girl in the mid-1960s, and since there wasn’t a plot to string the stories together, it wouldn’t be possible to make a film from it, it wasn’t until six months after Miyazaki had the idea to make this into a film for the story to be finalised to the help of Takahata, who suggested the idea of an adult woman revisiting her childhood memories. Due amount of animation needed (which I’ll explain in the next paragraph), meant that the film had to be delayed from its original late 1990 release date and needed to use outside sources to animate some of the scenes in order to finish the film for the later release of July 1991.
The process of animation for the adult scenes was radically different to the regular Japanese animation process. The voices were recorded first, then were animated, making sure that the animation synced up to the audio. This was done to focus on facial muscles, to emphasise emotions and add maturity to the adult Taeko and the other farmers, when compared to the childhood, because of this method, animation took longer than expected. This makes the animation all the more impressive, and the realism makes the audience feel like watching a live action film. If I was honest, my first impression to the facial muscles was off-putting but it quickly grew on me as the film progressed until I barely noticed it at the end.
There are two art styles to represent the present and past setting. The present setting focuses a lot on the realism of the environment and looks very nice, especially the safflower fields, several dark shades bring the setting to life. As for the past scenes, the scenes are bright, and use light colours, definitely like a childhood visual feel, but what bothers me is that there is too much white. With the exception of the night/dusk scenes, the sky, ground, even some of the walls and Taeko’s face are almost partially white at times. I think, since these scenes are flashbacks they can get away with it because it’s meant to be memories, so the scenery isn’t put through much detail.
The music is actually quite present, Katsu Hoshi’s combination of modern and classical Asian style scores are very calming, which certainly helps gives the film’s relaxing flow. One clever part of the music in the childhood scenes is that it used actual music from a real life mid-1960’s TV puppet show called “Hyokkori Hyoutan-Jima”, which despite being literally translated to “Little Gourd Island”, I always thought of it as “Little Pumpkin Island” for how well it suits a children’s show, but that isn’t the point I’m making. The songs the three scenes they are features are creatively played during a certain emotion: a happy and silly song is played during an excitement scene, a sad and sympathetic song during a dramatic scene and the uplifting and encouraging opening theme is played during a scene where Taeko feels depressed after what happened and what she was told. There a lot are scenes of silence, which are mainly in the conversation scenes, which makes the reader focus on the dialogue.
I cannot talk about the film’s English dub, because there isn’t one. It’s strange because as part of the Disney-Tokuma deal, they have the western distribution rights, yet this is the only film they haven’t made an English dub for. My guess is that lip syncing would make it harder to produce an English dub for the older scenes, so they decided not to bother. The Japanese dub is still very good, all giving a very human like performance, so I wouldn’t bother making or watching a dubbed version anyway.
If there was any problem with this film that might not lead to a recommendation, it would be that you need to know a lot of 20th Century Japanese culture to get every bit of detail in this film, or at least most of the childhood scenes. One scene I could never really get was when all the girls were taught about periods, but suddenly the boys hear about this and, since having no understanding of them, start treating this as a joke and look under girls’ skirts, with even one kid treating periods like an illness, it makes you wonder how much the parents and teachers discipline them or explain the situation. This might not be the case for every watcher, since I actually watched this with my anime illiterate parents, who were able to understand the story from beginning to end on their first ever viewing of the film, with no previous research, and only asking me once on something they didn’t get.
Despite that, Only Yesterday is a pretty relaxing film; you get to see the ups and downs of a young girl from the past and her fun on the farms in the present day. Even if it takes a little time to understand some of the plot points in the film, you really need to try and find a copy of this film and experience it firsthand.
Only Yesterday is available from Optimum Releasing. There have been several attempts by fans to encourage Walt Disney to release it on DVD in America, and is one of the Top 20 films not released on DVD on Ted Turner Classic Films, they have yet to release it so you’ll most likely need to import either the PAL or Japanese release to watch it. The original three volume manga written by Hotaru Okamoto with illustrations by Yuuko Tone have not been released for western audiences.