Studio Ghibli may be an unfamiliar name for most American audiences, but the hand-drawn films of this heralded Japanese animation house have inspired innumerable artists. That includes Pixar chief John Lasseter, who was instrumental in getting his bosses at Disney to ink a deal to distribute the bulk of Ghibli’s vast catalog of masterworks directed by recently retired studio co-founders Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata. Miyazaki earned an Academy Award for his 2001 spellbinder, Spirited Away, and the 75-year-old was recognized for his contributions to cinema with an Honorary Oscar at last year’s ceremony. Not to be outdone, the 80-year-old Takahata’s final film, 2013’s The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, was also celebrated at last year’s Academy Awards, where it was among the nominees for Best Animated Film.
Luckily for U.S. viewers, Takahata has one last gift for us: Only Yesterday, a melancholic masterpiece that was released 25 years ago in Japan but is only now making its way to our shores, playing in its original Japanese version with English subtitles as well as in a new English-language dub supervised by Ghibli. Drawing from Omohide Poro Poro, a manga focused on 10-year-old Taeko Okajima, Takahata has expanded on the source material by creating a 27-year-old version of the character, an unmarried Tokyo office worker who reflects on her schoolgirl past.
The film begins in 1982, when the adult Taeko (voiced by Miki Imai in Japanese and Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ Daisy Ridley in English) begins a 10-day vacation, boarding a train bound for rural Yamagata. Takahata uses this as his first opportunity to cut from the vivid colors of the ’82 scenes to the more muted watercolor backgrounds of ’66. Taeko is a bright presence throughout, but her 10-year-old incarnation (Youko Honna/Alison Fernandez) inhabits a world that’s almost completely desaturated, as if hazily recalled from a dream.
Envious of classmates who enjoy getaways to country homes, the younger Taeko begs her mother to be taken to visit imagined relatives in an idealized landscape far from the city. But first, she must deal with the teasing of the more popular girls, who have taken note of Hirota (Yuuki Masuda/Gianella Thielmann), a superb young softball player who isn’t as skilled when it comes to a timid crush on our heroine.
In one exchange, Takahata cuts between beautifully animated closeups of Taeko and a stammering Hirota as each dons a blushing smile. When they part ways, Taeko breaks into an excited run. In a rare departure from naturalism, Takahata shifts our perspective skyward, following Taeko as she runs up toward the heavens, climbing invisible stairs that reach into the clouds. Diving into Takahata’s flight of fancy, Taeko wades through the air, lifted by Katsu Hoshi’s surging score. Ghibli is beloved for such fantastical elements, which are found in abundance in imagination-fueled works like Spirited Away.
Takahata, however, became an animation legend for his atypical emphasis on realism (as in his masterful 1988 film Grave of the Fireflies, an unflinching look at the human costs of World War II), and Taeko’s trip sparks many less pleasant memories. On her train ride out of Tokyo, she wistfully recalls past defeats while observing, “I didn’t intend for 10-year-old me to come on this trip. But somehow, once she showed up, she wouldn’t leave me alone.”
Arriving in Yamagata, Taeko meets cute with farmhand Toshio (Toshirô Yanagiba/Dev Patel), who she mistakenly thinks is trying to steal her bag. They share a good laugh over it as he drives her to the fields where she’ll spend a working vacation picking safflowers on the same land she farmed during her previous summer’s vacation—when Toshio clearly took notice of the city girl.
Taeko handles the attention far better than her 10-year-old self would have, no longer fumbling for words as she did when faced with Hirota’s bashful affections. But that same bright smile from her youth reappears as she rekindles her passion for farming, bringing with it a sense of joy that’s been lacking since her first great passion was snuffed out in one of the scenes set in ’66.
Memories are key to Takahata’s narrative; there’s a sadness that informs many of Taeko’s childhood recollections, from her classmates’ mocking to the awkwardly believable way in which she deals with her first menstruation. (These non-explicit scenes may explain Disney’s reluctance to distribute this PG-rated film; independent distributor GKIDS is handling the release.) One of her harshest memories, however, finds her father (Masahiro Ito/Matthew Yang King) refusing to allow her to develop a budding talent. “Acting is out,” he proclaims after young Taeko is offered a part in an adult stage production. “Show business people are no good.”
But Taeko is a good person. We witness this time and again as Takahata breathes life into this hand-drawn character, providing her with subtle depth and humanity as past informs present and a woman discovers not only who she is, but who she might become.
Only Yesterday ****
Starring Miki Imai, Toshirô Yanagiba,Youko Honna, Yuuki Masuda, Yuki Minowa, Yorie Yamashita, Masahiro Ito, Michie Terada, Chie Kitagawa, Daisy Ridley, Dev Patel, Alison Fernandez, Jaden Betts, Gianella Thielmann, Ashley Eckstein, Laura Bailey, Matthew Yang King, Grey Griffin and Meda Marshall. Written by Isao Takahata, based on the manga Omohide Poro Poro by Hotaru Okamoto and Yuko Tone. At Kendall Square.