2016 Film Essays

Studio Ghibli Forever: An Initiation – ‘Only Yesterday’

“Studio Ghibli Forever: An Initiation” is a series in which Jordan Brooks, having no experience with the animation house, seeks to discover the basis for the worldwide phenomenon that is Ghibli. The international theatrical retrospective of some of Ghibli’s most beloved features serves as the perfect introduction to the studio giant, and will hopefully afford fans and newcomers alike a chance to see these monumental films as originally intended.

A nostalgic trip into the defining moments of a childhood, Only Yesterday‘s narrative strikes a balance between fantasy and self-actualization, causing its audience to reflect likewise. Oozing with sentimentality, Isao Takahata’s adult-oriented animation reaches out with tendrils of meta affectation, as it is impossible for an empathy-oriented audience to view these tender moments objectively. We are each therefore forced to take a trip of our own into the moments of singular importance that, when taken as a whole, define who we have become as people. A daydream as concocted by an impressionist master, Only Yesterday is more than a knowing nod into a foggy past, it recognizes that the past is something which we carry with us at every moment; an instant of inattention and decades peel away, thousands of miles disappear and we are fearful, insecure, hopeful and boisterous children once again.


Opening credits superimposed on a background of burlap immediately recall master Japanese auteur Yasujiro Ozu, whose unparalleled films capture the minutiae of mid-century domesticity in all of their mundane and extraordinary beauty. Juxtaposing this familiar imagery of the recent past with the unmistakable blinking lights and bulkiness of 1980s computers and the shiny optimism of Tokyo’s skyline, Takahata primes his audience for a story steeped in time traveling wistfulness. Traveling into the country for the annual safflower harvest, Taeko Okajima finds she is being accompanied by an unexpected guest — her fifth grade self. Reliving the moments that have become the most steadfast elements of her adult “self,” Taeko finds no revelatory moment of clarity in these memories, nor is she looking for one. Her sense of calm serenity towards her childhood is revelation enough for an audience that is likely at odds with her brand of strong conscious enlightenment.

In Takahata’s watercolor world of dreamy reminiscence, the inescapability of one’s past is a foregone conclusion. There is no need to convince the audience at large that their own youthful selves are not close by — with the introduction of young Taeko, we are given a sort of tacit permission to access our own juvenescence. Like lapsing into a guided meditation of pre-teen angst, Taeko’s first crush, tumultuous home life and an abundance of adolescent disappointments soundly resonate within the framework of our own infinitely unique lives. Finding a fictional character’s experiences so immediately applicable to moments in my childhood speaks volumes towards the universality of Takahata’s screenplay (adapted from a manga penned by Hotaru Okamoto and Yuuko Tone), and, indeed, to that of the greater “human” experience as a whole.


Like My Neighbor Totoro (and unlike his first Ghibli film Grave of the Fireflies), Takahata has put a great deal of careful beauty into the backdrop of his film. Yet unlike Miyazaki’s childhood fable, Takahata and his art director Kazuo Oga do not strive for detailed realism, and instead favor a style that hints at the grand beauty of the Japanese countryside. The shots surrounding the Safflower harvest are some of the most beautiful in my short experience with Studio Ghibli; the glistening sun on the dew-draped thistles and gentle breeze caressing the rolling green hills depicts the countryside with the same reverential adoration of the city-dwelling Taeko. Whereas Totoro conveys a magical sense of movement upon the landscape, and Grave of the Fireflies‘ backdrop echoes the muted grayness of Seita and Setsuko’s life, Takahata’s backgrounds gently capture light (with particular respect to the sunset/rise) in its eternally rarefied glory.

An enchanting film that surreally embraces the child within, Only Yesterday feels like the first Studio Ghibli film to be firmly aimed at an adult crowd. Allowing its audience to ease back into the delightful awkwardness of childhood while illuminating the importance of acquiescing to this youthful exuberance at the core of being, Isao Takahata’s film is a beautiful surrender to nostalgia and all of the pain, happiness and hope it brings with it.

Jordan Brooks (@viewtoaqueue) is an increasingly-snobby cinephile based out of London, England. As a contributor to several online publications, including his own blog, he has succeeded in fulfilling his life long dream of imposing strong opinions on others.


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