Title: Omoide Poroporo (Only Yesterday), 1991
Episode count: 1
Original Language: Japanese (Subtitled, English)
Genre: Drama, Romance, Slice of Life
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
The past ‘is’ a beautiful place; sometimes forgettable, sometimes haunting; it attaches itself to the very core of our subconscious and sinks our minds into those nostalgia-ridden days that always seem within grasp.
The past ‘is’ a beautiful being; sometimes familiar, sometimes distant; it reminds us of someone we used to be, someone who we often forget to be and in our childish reprise, it reveals to us who we are.
The past ‘is’ a beautiful time; sometimes forgiving, sometimes relentless; it holds all the gravity that grounds our lives in the form of memories that are ingrained within every passing moment.
Yet the bulk of stories revolving around the past are often melancholic-laden tales steeped in tragedy and trauma or reveling in themes of overcoming one’s history in some crusade-like war of self-actualization and evolution.
Amidst the melodramatic, hurting tales of yesterdays comes a different but refreshing narrative: one that reminds us to relay gratitude to our yesterdays and reconciles the past and present in a manner that hits close to home. This is precisely what director Isao Takahata brings us with his heart-warming, nostalgia-drenched tale titled “Only Yesterday”.
“Only Yesterday” is a modest story about a woman, Taeko Okajima and her journey of self-exploration with her 10-year old self who accompanies her as she comes to terms with herself, both in the past and present. There is nothing outstanding about this premise nor anything deeply profound about its content nor is there a ‘grander-than-life’ appeal that reverberates among many other Ghibli films, especially those of Hayao Miyazaki. Yet, this film excels and what it excels at more than anything is simplicity, both in character and story, proving that sometimes the most effective and resonating works aren’t complicated dogmas embellished in complicated matter.
The film opens up with a steadily inviting aura while introducing our unremarkable heroine Taeko who works an unglamorous job in a big corporation. As we plunge deeper into Taeko’s life, the slow encroachments and pressures that leave her with a gaping void overflowing with un-fulfillment and dissatisfaction begins to appear. As an unmarried Japanese woman in her late-twenties, Taeko is burdened by dissonant social norms such as being unmarried, being plain, aging, and generally being disinterested in her welfare which is linked to fulfilling the social customs akin to being a woman.
The one solace that Taeko has is her biannual pilgrimage to the countryside where she truly finds peace, farming. Detached from her city-life, distant from her social obligations, Taeko readies herself for her customary trip, but this time with a memory from the past: her 10-year old self.
Thoroughly realistic in the foreground, but faintly surreal in the background–the film functions as a trip itself–shifting in and out from Taeko’s memories where the perspective changes from her present-self to her childhood. At first, these flashbacks often appear to be random and extremely ordinary: scenes outlining her desire to go on a vacation for summer and ending up at an “onsen” with her grandmother or enjoying her first exotic fruit with her family. However, as the mesh between her past narration and present activities solidifies, the source of her unfulfillment and passion starts to surface.
Essentially, this is a tale as much about being grown up as it is about growing up. Often times, the lives we live are dictated not by our true will, but what we think our lives should be. Through witnessing the childish revelations of Taeko, there is a self-evident truth to be discovered that perhaps only the child within can fully understand. Taeko at one point wonders why it was herself at that point in time, as a 10-year old child that manifests and why she remembers a time long ago which had little to no defining point for her. This explicit inquiry is what the film subtly answers: The ordinary moments in an ordinary child’s life when she was truly herself, where boundaries were incomprehensible and the world was her canvass are then presented to be the extraordinary moments that are self-defining in themselves. As she remembers, we cannot help but remember with her and question where our hearts truly lie and what fulfillment means. “Only Yesterday” shows that happiness is not just a dream saved for those unwinding in the intricacies of a societal-money-making-driven life, but readily available for those who can unshackle themselves from their “I-should-bes” to “I-want-to-be”.
Although, this film has a fairly optimistic outlook, it isn’t far-fetched or deluded by its own sense of idealism. It is delectably mature and genuinely universal as the inner-subconscious struggle that Taeko faces can be felt on many different personal levels and what really crafts the heart of that empathy is the stellar writing. The dialogue and exposition feels very natural, but insightful. The poignant writing really brings out life’s mundaneness when stuck in a passionless, cyclical rut through Taeko’s narration. Perhaps the writing is the film’s greatest strength and its ability to connect to the viewer through reveling in activities, ideals, and notions that are blindly accepted and subsequently hoping to find a sense of completeness within that ruse. Even with it’s exceptional strengths, this film can be a chore for some due to its slow pacing or its cast of characters of many who just seem to be listening-devices for Taeko’s epiphanies.
Fine-tuned with a keen sense of maturity and often times, entailed in bittersweet moments of empathy, the story never feels heavy-handed or “too serious”. The tone is always light and reflective of the simple and austere nature of the film. Verdant landscapes and life-like detail is given to the backgrounds which are crafted with a pastel palette. The colors used complement the tone very well while extremely vivid backgrounds and character-designs further enhance the realism that encompasses this film; a great deal of attention is given to facial anatomy, which in turn, helps widen the parameters for expression and emotion of each and every character. In essence, every element works in tandem with one another to produce a charming down-to-earth story, both visually and substantially appealing.
Whether happiness or feeling fulfilled is necessary to live is irrelevant, but what this film highlights is that it is attainable, whether that be in decadent mansions or farming in a bucolic-unheard-of-village. There is no universal, axiomatic standard for happiness, but one that we must find within ourselves. The past prepares us for that and the present yearns for it. Isao Takahata brings this revelation through an enlightening journey of a simple woman lost in translation within the world around her and how through her past, finds meaning, fulfillment and happiness and by extension shows that –
Indeed, the past is beautiful. But so is the present…