Monday, March 7, 2016

Only Yesterday Review

Studio Ghibli is the corner stone of animation in my opinion. If Disney is the Beatles, Ghibli is the Rolling Stones. The movies they've made, mainly at the helm of fabled director Hayao Miyazaki, are some of the most unique and intricately animated films ever made. No two of their films are alike, and each one seems to pull off a memorable and original tone that American animators can't seem to replicate. So when I heard there was an unreleased film from 1991 set to be distributed to the states this year, I enthusiastically anticipated it's release. And after finally seeing it, I can say that Only Yesterday, for the most part, was worth the unnecessarily long wait.

Only Yesterday is directed by Ghibli's second best director Isao Takahata (Grave of the Fireflies). The story is about a 27-year-old women named Taeko who is taking a holiday from her claustrophobic Tokyo-based desk job, to work in the country side with some farmers harvesting safflower. Throughout her journey she reflects upon her 10-year-old self in the fifth grade, a time in her life where she experienced a lot of change and learned about the world for the first time. Something that may or may not be inherently implied when watching is that the film is 25 years old, so it should be viewed in the context of that time. It didn't have the luxury of being viewed here in that time period and developing into a nostalgic classic like other films. So some may be a little underwhelmed when watching this movie. There are no twists in the story, no shocking moments, and no deviations of tone for the sake of sympathy of the character (ie a hypothetical death in her family). It is very deliberate and to the point with it's direction. Some may wonder why Taeko is primarily focused on her fifth grade self and not a full spectrum of her adolescence. I had myself wondering that at times too, but I think that it has to do with the culture of Japan. High School lifestyle is not the same in the Nihon as it is here, and maybe it's less drama centric over there. Perhaps the age of 10 (around that age) is a universally pivotal moment in every girls life, independent of her culture. As a boy, I can't really empathize with that, as girls and boys mature at different ages, but I can definitely see there being a relevance to that younger age. Taeko seems to be experience a mid life crisis type of moment in her life, as she is wondering if her life in the city isn't where she's meant to be and yearns for the country side. I also think this plays into the Japanese work culture that is still prevailing today. Japan is known to have some of the hardest workers, but it is also known to have one of the highest suicide rates in the world per capita, as many will literally work themselves to death. I can't say this confidently, but I'm sure the Japanese audience identified with Taeko's woes and experienced the vicarious lifestyle change with her.

Speaking of culture, I thought that to be one of the most fascinating aspects of the movie. It was interesting comparing my American middle school experience to Taeko's, as it seems that hers was more regimented and strict. I know her childhood story took place in the sixties and it could have been similar to American middle school children at the time, but I'm almost positive there were aspects that were exclusive to Japan. It was also interesting seeing the family dynamics, as well as the working conditions for the farmers to compare with what happens here in the states. I personally felt like I took a mini tour through Japanese lifestyles, and it had me longing for a real visit over there after the movie. Now, the main reason this film wasn't released here until 2016 is because there is a notable portion dedicated to girls getting their first period. I had heard about this reason prior to seeing the film, and I honestly expected much much worse for a 25 year delay. It's so harmless that I don't see the need to censor this from children at all. Now, I don't believe they can really identify with the movie in the first place, as it's about reflecting on who you are (Taeko) and where you came from and using that to propel you into the next chapter of your life post-education. But regardless, it's a shame that they had to keep this movie in the vault for so long for that reason. Don't buy Disney's probable excuse of "we didn't think it would have been a profitable movie."

The animation for 1991 is otherworldly. There are two distinct styles between Taeko's present and her fifth grade past. The present is sharper, more colorful, and filled with beautiful landscapes. Her past has more muted colors, the faces are a little more cartoon-like, and the backgrounds are less full. In fact there is a hazy glow in the flashbacks that help distinguish it from Taeko's present. A Youtuber I watch named Chris Stuckmann astutely pointed out that this was a perfect visual representation of how we think of memories in our youth. Like if you visualize a memory from your childhood, it kind of looks exactly like what is drawn. Not full, with a glow, and less sharp features in peoples faces. A brilliant animation choice for today, making it borderline revolutionary for 1991. There was a moment in the film where a car is driving in the country side after a rain shower, and the headlights hit the water on the leaves and there is a distinct glisten that made my jaw drop. I can't imagine how people reacted when this movie first came out, and what kind of inspiration it invoked on future films that we may have praised for their originality unknowingly.

While I very much appreciate a good reminiscing-on-life story, and this one was good, I can't help feel that the story played itself a little too subdued. Don't get me wrong, a good movie knows when to hold itself back, and real life isn't always filled with big cinematic moments, but I feel Takeo's admiration of farm life wasn't completely fleshed out to its fullest potential. Every moment in her young life was relevant to her current situation and her feelings that she faced, but I felt like it wasn't completely connected to her disdain of city life in a satisfying way. I think it's somewhat due to it's 1991 release and the very much new wave of Japanese animation, but since its being released today for the first time its hard to separate it from that handicap. And because of this, I don't think this movie will be the most memorable in the pantheon of Ghibli movies. I think I will remember it most for the flashback scenes, however. Young Taeko is so cute, and her actions are extremely believable and genuine of a girl that age. Seeing the world through her eyes and some of the pivotal moments of growing up was hard not to bring a big smile on your face. I don't know how I feel about the "love interest" Toshio, because [SPOILERS] she never really has a non-plutonic moment with him. Their attraction is only implied and at the end of the film we see them rush to each other, but they never kiss. It was hasty to bring up the idea of marriage with him (a moment which is somewhat acknowledged), but we don't know for sure if they get married, or even get together in the first place. I want to give it praise for its restrained approach to love, because sometimes love and relationships aren't as convenient as this one could have been. So I tentatively give it props for that. I just don't know how intentional that was. [END SPOILERS].

This movie was a treat to see. A real life "hidden gem" as the le internets say. Other than the animation, the movie didn't exceed my expectations of a quality, but not next level Ghibli movie. Which is fine, I didn't expect a Spirited Away-type movie to be held off from the states for so long. It was like finding a $50 bill in a pile of your old stuff. It won't buy you anything super special, but it's definitely a day-maker and definitely worth mentioning to your friends. I'm not sure how good that analogy was but whatever, the movie is good I would recommend seeing it before it's taking off the release cycle. It's not a movie I'll be rewatching often, but one I hope to revisit at a different point in my life and see how my feelings have changed since today. 7.5/10