I Watched This Film Only Yesterday

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.


  1. I don’t think I’ve seen a Ghibli movie I haven’t enjoyed, but I wouldn’t rate this one up there with some of the classics they’ve done. This one, I think, was just a bit listless at times. I mean, I like grounded storytelling, but Only Yesterday just lacked something. A better example of Ghibli taking on a (relatively) grounded story was Ocean Waves, IMO.

  2. Despite his undeniable talents as a director, I don’t think Takahata has the writing skills to match. All of his films, including Grave of the Fireflies, have this lumpen, disjointed, episoding pacing that makes them a chore to watch through in one sitting. The flipside is that his films always have a whole bunch of wonderful moments in them though, so there’s always something to take your mind off the nagging sensation that what you’re watching just doesn’t quite work when taken all together. Oh, and I completely agree about the voiceover. I’m going to get like a broken record on this, but voiceovers must be exterminated from anime forthwith.

  3. My favorite Ghibli film of all time. You guys just don’t understand its greatness.

  4. I have always wanted to sit down and watch Only Yesterday along with Ocean Waves as two of the Ghibli movies I have not yet seen. I really liked My Neighbors the Yamadas but his seems a very different type of movie from a very different source material. I just always assumed Disney was going to release it on DVD but that has not seemed to have happened yet.

    It does seem like something Narutaki and I would watch. Maybe we should throw this in with some other titles and do an over looked works of Ghibli month.

    Great review. I was a little worried to were going to get a list of shows like Evan from the Anigamers and have to review something like True Tears. For better or for worse that was not the case. Still I am glad you had a good time with what you watched. I hope we can do a joint project again.

  5. Hsui:

    The reason why Disney/Buena Vista has been reluctant to release this film in the U.S. officially is because of a small sub-plot dealing with ten year old Taeko and her school-mates learning about menstruation. Nothing graphic is shown or discussed, and it is all handled with grace and taste, but knowing how a minority of parents in the U.S. will have a field day over a cartoon having a frank sex-ed discussion has left Disney skittish.

  6. Zach: I’ve said this before, but if Disney was worried about a cartoon about a girl’s period, it wouldn’t have produced a PSM back in the 40s. http://www.google.com/search?hl=en&source=hp&q=Disney+menstrutation&aq=f&oq=&aqi= Nor would it release another movie from the guy where the testicles of woodland animals have prominent roles.

    As the company reps stated during the dubbed Totoro screening in L.A. a few years back, they’re worried that the film is too “mature” for their target audience. So, in other words, they’re worried they can’t make money off it like they would with something more along the lines of Hannah Montana, because it doesn’t have some young ditzy girl on some stupid adventure. In fact, that’s probably why they put out Kiki on home video first. [Note that I do not consider Kiki to be “ditzy”; but she’s more in line with who the company’s targeting.]

    So I guess the only options you have to see it are: 1)Support all R1 Takahata products, and hope Disney gets the message, and puts it out through a subsidiary, like they did with Princess Mononoke 2) Import it. 3)Hope another R1 company will pay Buena Vista Japan’s ransom money for the title, like they did with Grave of the Fireflies. This might not actually be that hard, given that Takahata’s not that big in Japan, either.

  7. There has been a UK DVD release. If Disney were really concerned about their customers finding out about menstruation, surely this would apply worldwide? (Unless they think British girls are tough enough to handle it and American girls just aren’t?)

  8. Helen: I thought a different company handles the European releases for Ghibli.

  9. D.Z.:

    “but if Disney was worried about a cartoon about a girl’s period, it wouldn’t have produced a PSM back in the 40s. http://www.google.com/search?hl=en&source=hp&q=Disney+menstrutation&aq=f&oq=&aqi=

    You say that as though Walt Disney and his associates were still running the company, which they aren’t. This is 2009, not 1946, and general social norms and taboos have shifted since then. As for Pom Poko, the dub tries to sidestep the tanooki issue calling their testicles “pouches”.

    “As the company reps stated during the dubbed Totoro screening in L.A. a few years back, they’re worried that the film is too “mature” for their target audience.”

    Which is exactly what the menstruation discussion and scene is about, Buena Vista/Disney feels the issue of girls having their periods is too mature an issue for the standard Disney audience.

    If anybody’s interested, a Disney subtitled version of ‘Only Yesterday’ was broadcast on Turner Classic Movies a few years ago, along with a few other Ghibli films.

  10. “This is 2009, not 1946, and general social norms and taboos have shifted since then.”

    Actually, a company like Disney being associated with a sex-ed video would have probably been considered more controversial back then, especially considering the Hollywood black-listing going on around that time. The only times in recent memory that they got flak were for supporting The Ellen Show and recognizing same-sex couples getting married at their theme parks. And right now, the Disney’s probably more concerned with burying Song of the South than it is with an anime that briefly touches upon the birds and the bees.

    So believe me, if that kind of content were an issue, they would have fired the HSM cast and Miley Cyrus for those risque pics they took a while ago. No, the real problem is that, if they put it out, no one(or not enough people, anyway) would buy it, because it would not be a hit with the demos they’re currently targeting. Besides, if it were really that much of an issue, they could just change the dialogue to “that time of the month!” or something of that nature, in the same way that you cited how they got around Pom Poko. Though in Pom Poko’s case, I still think that’s a lot harder for parents to explain to kids than a brief lecture and commentary in Only Yesterday. But I imagine Disney went with it, anyway, because cashing in on cartoon animals is their forte.

    Actually, to me, the hardest sell seems to be the Yamadas. It’s not a “tween”-oriented title; it’s presented in a low-budget 2-d style; and it’s more of a slice-of-life type of film than it is about the family going on wacky adventures like you’d see in American cartoons. So, other than hoping you can sell it as a family-friendly Japanese equivalent to the Simpsons, that film probably had its work cut out for it here the most of the bunch.

  11. D.Z.: Optimum Releasing, a subsidiary of the French media conglomerate Vivendi, distributes Disney’s dubs of Ghibli films in the UK: the marketing approach is very close to Disney’s.

  12. The reason why Omohide Poro Poro was released in Australia and the UK without incident is that those countries aren’t being overrun by a fanatical, fundamentalist right wing hellbent on destroying everything. If you don’t understand what this means, then you should spend an afternoon either a) listening to Rush Limbaugh, b) watching Fox News, or c) renting the documentary Jesus Camp.

    Omohide Poro Poro has three problems that would cause Disney execs nightmares: the scene of Taiko-chan at the bath house, the sequence dealing with menstruation, and Taiko’s gay sister. Good Lord, half the seniors in the US actually believe in “death panels” (the idea that Barack Obama will literally send grandma to the death camps). Can you imagine the damage that could be caused with this?

    Disney’s suits are not about to take a hard blow to the chin over some foreign film that nobody (aside from the few dedicated fans) knows or cares about.

    It’s really too bad; Omohide Poro Poro stands as Isao Takahata’s greatest achievement, aside from Heidi-Marco-Anne, of course. At least you’ll be able to import the DVD from elsewhere, so you’re not completely stuck in the lurch. But don’t expect to see this movie sitting on the store shelf next to “Billie Ray Sells His Daughters Souls For Another 15 Minutes of Fame” or “Fairy Tale Stepford Princesses Volume XXXIX.” Ain’t gonna happen.

    Great blog, btw. Get back to work!

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