Review: Studio Ghibli's ONLY YESTERDAY 'Timeless, Well-Crafted & Stunning'

Still from "Only Yesterday"
Credit: GKids / Studio Ghibli
Credit: Studio Ghibli / GKids

Only Yesterday
Starring Daisy Ridley, Dev Patel, Alison Fernandez, Hope Levy, Stephanie Sheh, Ava Acres, Madeleine Rose Yen, Jaden Betts, Gianella Thielmann, Grey Griffin, Laura Bailey, Matt Yang King, Ashley Eckstein, Meda Marshall, Sumalee Montano, Tara Strong, and Nika Futterman.

Written and Directed by Isao Takahata
Review by Lan Pitts
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

There’s an old saying, "home is where the heart is," and that message is at the heart of Studio Ghibli’s Only Yesterday. For years this Isao Takahata-directed film was the sole Ghibli film never released in North America, but finally makes its way into theaters nationwide Friday with an English dub featuring the voices of Daisy Ridley, Dev Patel, Alison Fernandez, and Tara Strong.

Originally released in 1991, Only Yesterday tells the story of 27-year-old Taeko Okajima (Daisy Ridley) who leaves her busy life in Tokyo for a summer in the country to help pick safflowers with family. The story takes place in the early 80’s, so the fashion sense mirrors that as does her childhood that’s filled with 60’s pop culture. On the way to the country, she takes an overnight train and memories (both good and not-so-good) of her youth start to flood her mind. “I didn’t expect to bring my fifth-grade self along for the trip,” Taeko thinks to herself when recalling the feeling of first crushes, puberty, and her struggles in school. This is probably Studio Ghibli’s less supernatural film that concentrates of a more grounded story, but it’s not without charm or elements of whimsy along the way.

Credit: GKids / Studio Ghibli

Being picked up from the train station by a man named Toshio (Dev Patel), who is the second cousin of the brother-in-law she came to stay with, whom she barely knows. On the way to the farm, the two bond over childhood memories and farming life while Taeko’s mind wanders to her youth again. Only Yesterday alternates the timelines of old and young Taeko, almost making  her 10-year-old self the real star of the picture. It’s her moments that make the film, as it’s older Taeko’s life that keeps the movie’s pace going. Young Taeko’s slices of life are seen through her eyes, but processed with an older mind is the balancing act of Only Yesterday; an act it excels at.

Credit: GKids / Studio Ghibli

Both sides of Taeko’s life are mirrored, especially in how we see the handling of her first crush (which wasn’t initiated by her) and how she’s pressured to get married by her mother, sister, and even a worker on the farm. We’re uncertain of her current employment aside from it being an office job, but it’s irrelevant as she’s seen doing fine on her own, but is it enough? Is she doing her full potential? Is it where she wants to be? Those are the questions that Taeko faces throughout the movie. Despite being made over twenty years ago, the theme of finding yourself is timeless and this movie could have been made last year and it still hold up.

Credit: GKids / Studio Ghibli

Of course this being from Studio Ghibli, and anybody who has seen the documentary about the extraordinary artists who work in the studio, The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness, is all-too familiar with the level of detail and beauty that’s poured into each film. There’s a delicacy that goes into making these movies from the vibrant color scheme to character design. Now, since this is based off an existing manga by Hotaru Okamoto and Yuko Tone, the character designs are kept intact and even some of the environments feel like they have their own personality. From the opening shot of Taeko’s office building to far shots of the safflower fields, there’s a plethora of strong visuals that are so well-crafted and stunning to admire.

Credit: GKids / Studio Ghibli

Only Yesterday might seem out of place within the borders of My Neighbor Totoro, Spirited Away, and even Takahata’s war picture Grave of the Fireflies, but this poignant and earthly tale fills the chronological void for Ghibli enthusiasts. It also fills the heart with wonder and teaches us that even though there will be good days and bad days, what it means to have a full life.

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