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Films you must see: Only Yesterday

onlyyesterday_54849I vaguely recall seeing Porco Rosso (1992) back in the early 1990s, but the first Studio Ghibli film I ever watched knowing it was a Studio Ghibli film was 2001’s Spirited Away. It was only a couple of years after its release. I’m not a huge fan of anime or animated films, though I’ve seen most of the big ones, so I only bothered adding later Studio Ghibli films to my DVD rental list if someone had recommended them. And that’s how I came to see Howl’s Moving Castle (2004) and Tales from Earthsea (2006) (though the latter wasn’t exactly “recommended”…).

But a couple of years ago, I decided to work my way through all of the Studio Ghibli films, so I stuck them on my DVD rental list in their order of release. Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984), which is not strictly speaking a Studio Ghibli film, I found an interesting, if slightly odd, sf film. Laputa – Castle in the Sky (1986) was also fun, especially some of the steampunkish bits. Grave of the Fireflies (1988) I described here on my blog last year as a “sad story spoiled by mawkishness”. My Neighbour Totoro (1988) and Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989) I thought were overly twee.

But then last weekend I watched Only Yesterday

Released in 1991, Only Yesterday is unlike the other Studio Ghibli films in that it is a realistic drama, and contains no genre elements at all. It was adapted from a manga of the same title by Hotaru Okamoto and Yuko Tone, and written and directed by Isao Takahata. The plot is relatively straightforward. Taeko, a young woman resident in Tokyo, decides to get away from city life for a while and travels out into the country to help a relative with the safflower harvest. During the train journey to Yamagata, Taeko remembers incidents from her life when she was ten years old. The film then flips back and forth between Taeko’s present in 1982 and her childhood in 1966. The sections set in the past are drawn with backgrounds which resemble watercolours, while the 1982 sections are much more realistic – and in many cases, quite beautifully painted.

Given my previous experience with Studio Ghibli films, Only Yesterday was completely unexpected. It wasn’t just that the quality of artwork seemed to stand out more because it depicted the real world, but also that the characters were so well-written. Taeko is both an interesting and engaging heroine, at both ages, and the two narratives played off each other extremely well. Even the supporting cast were good – from the grandmother who’s perhaps a little too blunt, to Toshio, the love interest, whose understated matter-of-factness anchors one of the film’s best scenes. And the ending, where Taeko’s childhood self and her school friends appear and help her make a decision which changes her life, was beautifully judged. I’ll not be surprised if this film makes it onto my best of the year list.

Meanwhile, I still have eleven Studio Ghibli films to watch, though I suspect I’ve just watched the best of them…

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