Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Only Yesterday ( おもひでぽろぽろ) Review

Only Yesterday ( おもひでぽろぽろ)

Continuing with my impressions of Studio Ghibli’s ‘non-Miyazaki’ productions, Only Yesterday by Isao Takahata is another overlooked film. Released back in 1991, it was a surprising box office success and was popular among both adults as well as children. With My Neighbour Totoro and Kiki’s Delivery Service having been released in 1988 and 1989, it was a slight departure from Ghibli’s narrative style. Yet Takahata had already established himself in the studio with his most compelling film: Grave of the Fireflies back in 1988. 
Set in the 1980s, the film follows bored office worker Taeko as she heads to the countryside in an attempt to escape the busy, urban landscapes. Meeting with family, friends and working on the farm, she reminisces about her childhood, parents, dreams, puberty and romances through flashbacks. Only Yesterday’s plot doesn’t distinguish itself from the waves of ‘slice of life’ animated dramas, primarily because at first glance it’s pretty simple. The film doesn’t have talking animals or mystical monsters, but focuses on very ‘human’ experiences and that’s what Isao Takahata does best. 
The ‘downhearted worker’ retelling stories or revisiting their childhood, has become a cliché in Japanese culture and is a characteristic of Japanese society. Whilst I am a manga reader, it is clear that audiences and the ‘otaku’ culture has occurred from individuals wanting to relive or reminisce about frivolous stories and ‘adventures’ through these types of media. Teenage dramas such as Azumanga Daioh and Haruhi Suzumiya have cemented themselves globally, and have attracted mature audiences primarily because of clever, realistic and relatable stories and characters. Only Yesterday follows the same setup yet in a more restraint manner and through a realistic approach. No over-exaggerated expressions, cringe-worthy dialogue or events, just simple story-telling and realistic and interesting personalities. As always Takahata employs various cultural references from Japanese television and music during the 1960s which indicate the reality of the story. While Western audiences won’t gain the same nostalgia, recollection of past childhoods or memories from these sources, it’s still interesting to gain a sense of popular culture in Japan during the period. 
With the premise remaining distinctly ‘human’, the characters mirror the atmosphere and the narrative. 20 something-year-old Taeko isn’t as enjoyable to watch as her younger self, but in someways that’s everyone’s personal experience of growing up. Generally our childhood or school-life years are the best times of our life. You make friends, you have little responsibility and are cared for by close family. In comparison, as soon as you start working, conversations boil down to ‘School......those were the days’. And this is what Only Yesterday portrays perfectly. While an ill-favoured criticism would be that mature Taeko’s dialogue primarily consists with her reminiscing back to her childhood. But that is the point of the film. While she meets her family and friends, and forms a relationship with Toshio during her time on the farm, we gain a true understanding of her personality and character through her flashbacks. 
Her younger self is a much more relatable and an interesting individual. We explore the relationship between family members, and the conservative father. We explore Taeko entrance into puberty and the problems/ hardship that comes with that, and subsequently her understanding of ‘love’. Its cleverly directed, with an almost reversed sense of life’s pace and hectic portrayal. There’s a sense of calm and tranquility in her mature self, whilst her younger image frantically experiences everything. It’s full of clever metaphors and morals that leaves a lasting impression and intrigue to Takahata’s personal understanding of ‘growing up’.
Animation-wise, Only Yesterday sticks to the realistic and human approach by retaining Studio Ghibli tried and tested formula of art style. Character models are simple but manage to express more subtle emotion than your average ‘anime’ series. The contrast between urban settings and countryside is beautifully mapped with a colourful visual look. Linked to this, is the clear contrast in art direction between Taeko’s past and present. While backgrounds are detailed and lush in the 1980s, the art team seems to have opted for simple cream backgrounds, almost like ‘thought bubbles’. It’s an interesting choice.My only criticism would be the design of the older Taeko. Her defined wrinkles and cheek dimples make her look like she’s in her late 30s/ early 40s, rather than late 20s. But this isn’t a major problem. 
Overall, Only Yesterday has a simple premise, yet deals with it perfectly, charmingly and smartly. While it hasn’t the cutesy imagery, or magical essence of Hayao Miyazaki’s work, it’s realistic and very ‘human’. There’s a sense of nostalgia, an empathy towards the characters and their experience as we personally remember our childhoods in an attempt to escape the hectic pace of employment or maturity. Highly Recommended.

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