If there’s one thing I learned from the experience of filling out one of those MAL profiles for the Reverse Thieves’ “Secret Santa” review exchange, it’s that I’ve spent the last decade watching an utterly disgusting number of Japanese cartoons. I mean, it could be worse — I could’ve sunk all that time into World of Warcraft — but there’s still something depressing at staring at a long list of television, direct-to-video and film series I’ve watched, and realizing that even that much are just what I can remember. Considering how splotchy and awful my memory is in general, this is a truly distressing prospect.
Only Yesterday (aka Omohide Poroporo), one of the few Studio Ghibli films not yet released on DVD in America, is all about memory, the recollections of childhood, and particularly the less-than-rosy parts of it. After all, it’s not really the joys and triumphs that come first to your mind when you think back on youth, it’s all the embarrassing things you said, the disappointments, the arguments, the misconceptions, the crushed ambitions. It’s an exercise in nostalgia, and in that it mostly succeeds — whether or not you enjoy it is another matter entirely.
The legend I read after seeing the film goes that director/scriptwriter Isao Takahata was having a very difficult time trying to create a coherent storyline out of the vignettes of childhood that made up the original Omohide Poroporo comic series. Now, maybe the hack should’ve just tried harder, but Takahata decided instead to write a framing story around the material he was adapting, mixing protagonist Taeko’s memories of fourth grade with her present life as a 27-year-old woman on vacation with her brother-in-law’s family in rural Japan, seeking direction and purpose. It’s fairly universal material: the experiences of a youngster in 1960s Japan, it seems, are not particularly divorced from the experiences of a youngster in 1990s America (e.g. mine, because it’s all about me, baby).
I don’t think the framing material particularly fits with the flashbacks, though. Oh, there are many noble attempts, usually in the form of expository dialog, to explain how a particular incident from Taeko’s past relates to one of her current concerns, but the film never quite shakes the sense that these two plots would be better off further developed on their own. I’m certainly sympathetic to Taeko’s conflicting feelings about how and where she wants to live her life, but it feels underdeveloped, since there’s only one vague reference to her fascination with rural life in the flashback material. The visuals also contribute to the disconnect: the flashback sequences use softer, less-detailed backgrounds and flat one-tone coloring for the characters, while the present day scenes feature far more detailed facial animation than is standard for Japanimation (characters have cheeks!) and the usual lovely Ghibli environments.
The film uses a lot of voice-over narration, particularly to comment on the otherwise realistic film’s few lapses into the metaphorical. This is a pet peeve of mine: I really hate it when visual storytelling techniques are treated as insufficient to set the mood or situation, that what the characters are feeling or what the viewer is seeing needs to be explained somehow. Must adult Taeko really make a comment in the narration about “bringing along” her ten-year-old self when the exact same idea is shown in the scene moments later? I’m not saying you have to be Satoshi Kon, just that it’s okay to let a sequence stand on its own, as the final scene of the film does wonderfully. If only there were more moments like it.
Ultimately, Only Yesterday is about mood and feelings. It’s frequently awkward and embarrassing, as nostalgia usually is, but it never falls into manipulative melodrama. It’s about everyday life, and while I don’t think Takahata’s changes are particularly successful, it’s a pleasant enough film if you’re in the proper mood and situation in life to take it in. If you read Colony Drop, you probably qualify. Maybe someday Disney will decide to give the film a chance to find its audience here.