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Having lived her whole life in the city, 27-year-old Taeko (Daisy Ridley, Star Wars: The Force Awakens) decides to visit her relatives in the countryside. As she travels, memories of her youth resurface and after meeting young farmer Toshio (Dev Patel, Slumdog Millionaire), she wonders if she's been true to the dreams of her childhood self. Deftly switching between past and present, Only Yesterday is a masterpiece of time and tone, rich with humor and stirring emotion, and beautifully animated by Studio Ghibli, one of the world's most revered animation studios. From Academy Award-nominated director Isao Takahata (The Tale of The Princess Kaguya) and General Producer Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away), this critically acclaimed film has never before been released in North America until now–in celebration of its 25th anniversary.
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While feeling a little outdated at times in terms of dialogue, "Only Yesterday" is perhaps the finest example of Studio Ghibli's timelessness. What set it apart from others at the time was its focus on telling a simple, adult-oriented story for female that wasn't about flying witches or magical princesses. It was groundbreaking then, and remains a powerful if simply-told story now. The central character is 27-year-old Taeko (Ridley), a Tokyo-native who has lived all of her life in the city, working a boring job and never finding the right man to marry. In Japanese culture the latter makes her something of a pariah, especially to her siblings. Even when she asks for time away for a vacation, her boss openly asks if it's because she got dumped by a boyfriend.
But that time off Taeko needs is to take stock of her life and embrace the girl she used to be, and so she heads off to the Yamagata countryside to visit distant relatives. The journey begins to rekindle memories of her life as a 5th-grader, and the people and events that shaped the woman has become and doesn't fully understand. The film is awash in Taeko's flashbacks, with some bleeding over into her current day thoughts. What we get are essentially a pair of intersecting stories centered on young Taeko, as she experiences first love, first friendships, puberty, and more. In the present, Taeko begins to forge a lasting emotional bond with Toshio (Patel), a cousin who not only introduces her to the wonders of organic farming, but helps her sort through her inner baggage.
The film is directed by the legendary Isao Takahata, who three years earlier had helmed the classic animated film, "Grave of the Fireflies", which I and many consider one of the greatest movies about war ever made. Takahata trades in the same powerful emotional currency to "Only Yesterday" as he did with "Grave of the Fireflies", and that includes dealing with some of Taeko's memories that aren't so pleasant. It becomes clear that Taeko had always felt some kind of alienation, long before she ever grew up. Like most things, it begins with something seemingly innocent, like the mocking she receives from boys about her menstrual cycle. But that feeling of isolation grows stronger due to the influence of her parents; a father who remains distant most of the time, and a mother who has a deeper connection with Taeko's sisters than with her.
So where's the twist? What's the shocking reveal that throws Taeko's life for a loop? Well, there isn't one. Individually, it's probably fair to say that many of Taeko's experiences are commonplace. But that's pretty much the point, isn't it? Put together as a whole, these seemingly unremarkable moments are what make Taeko the unique person she is. It may sound like it would be tedious, but there's something profound in "Only Yesterday"'s simplicity. If this were a live-action film we'd be talking about how they don't make these kinds of character pieces anymore. What's interesting is that Japanese animation continues to produce them on a regular basis now, and it should come as no surprise we have Studio Ghibli to thank for it. Only Yesterday [Blu-ray]
Disney got very self-congratulatory when they brought out Ghibli films; it becomes about THEIR behind the scenes efforts, THEIR big name voice actors, THEIR everything. I previously bought The Tale of The Princess Kaguya and loved how it was all about 1. JAPAN, 2. Isao Takahata, and 3. Everything that went into making that movie though I was kind of interested in what what America did to bring it here, and what James Caan, Mary Steenburgen Chole Grace and Darren Criss might have had to say...
This is a little more America than Japan behind the scenes coverage but it's still something of a balance. The American voice actors are fine but just like Kaguya, the one who's acting seemed flat and awkward was the title character, and that's a darn shame... Obviously this is because they're actors from live action film with no real experience in animation and you KNOW Daisy Ridley being here was a draw, but considering Studio Ghibli is hurting for money I can't blame them...?
This movie is extremely underrated. A lot of people apparently have bad taste in films. It's superior to every other studio ghibli offering in both profundity of concept and execution, it's a remarkably mature (in the truest since of that word) masterwork and honestly one of the finest offerings animation, Japanese or otherwise, has ever produced.
Watch it now, love it forever.
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