an article by suha
art by Ben Erickson
Only Yesterday was the first Ghibli film I ever watched. I was flipping through channels when I randomly came across it. I did not watch it from the beginning and was interrupted before I could finish it. During the short time I spent watching it however, it was clear that the movie did not have a real plotline. It was by all means a dull film that did not seem to have a point. Even so, I could not look away. I felt completely captivated by it. The art, the colours, the music, the gentle voice of the narrator, and most importantly, the main character. Despite only seeing a small part of it, the film resonated with me on a deeply emotional level, and it was years before I understood why.
Only Yesterday is a Studio Ghibli film about Taeko Okajima, a single woman living in Tokyo who takes a trip to visit her sister’s family in the countryside during the annual safflower harvest. The movie switches between the past and the present as Taeko daydreams about her childhood memories, specifically from when she was in fifth grade, and wonders about what her younger self would think about some of her choices since. She relives moments of childhood excitement as well as the more painful or confusing memories, some of which she shares with the other characters in the film in the lighthearted charm of a storyteller.
Throughout the film, Taeko portrays stories of the past and present by narrating her thoughts. Even when she’s telling stories to the others, the way that she expresses herself sounds written. She is the narrator not just for our benefit as the audience, but because we are experiencing her memories through the way that she thinks to herself.
It was these core elements of the movie that initially held my attention. The way she narrated her thoughts was extremely relatable for me, as I had the tendency to articulate my own thoughts as though they were words on a page meant for anyone other than just myself to read and understand. As a young reader, I felt I could only understand the world around me in stories that could be told, and so I experienced memories by framing them as stories I told no one. Hearing Taeko’s narration felt more like I was listening to a train of thought. It was familiar in a way that was new, and I instantly fell for it. However, it was the way she concerned herself with her younger self that stayed with me, and for years after accidentally stumbling across this film, this was the only thing I could remember about it.
The first time I saw this film was during the peak of an identity crisis (the first of many to come) that I was going through. Thinking about the future as a young student, I couldn’t stop reminiscing about a past version of myself, and wondering if I was going to disappoint her. Although Taeko’s take on her younger self was different from mine in a lot of ways, the way she talked about her fifth grade self as though she existed as a separate entity from her was a clear reflection of my own thoughts at the time.
A few years later, I fell in love with Studio Ghibli films and was incredibly excited to rediscover the mystery movie that cast its spell on me so long ago. It was . . . just as uneventful as I remembered, and I was so happy to be watching it. Of course, if you’re familiar with Studio Ghibli films, you’ll know that the magic of these films does not lie in exciting story lines.
With Studio Ghibli films, you don’t come for the plot, but to fall in love with life. With the vibrant colours of food and the details in the process of preparing it. With putting your hair up and choosing an outfit for the day. With the gliding of a pen on paper, the tapping of rain against a window, the comforting mess in your childhood bedroom. Because the mundane is somehow refreshing when it falls under no other context.
Ghibli films make me crave a long walk, a bike ride, reading a book, sitting by the water. They refresh our appetite for the little things we do everyday, but neglect performing consciously. They prompt an urge to be present because aren’t the little moments too precious to miss?
So the uneventfulness of the film was in no way a drawback for me, and it was just as wonderful as I remembered. It was during my rewatch of the film that I realised why my love for this movie was so great, when I had found many others more enjoyable to watch and easier to recommend. Taeko held up a mirror to me, and I was okay with what I saw.
Generally, I don’t see myself in characters unless I notice my own flaws accentuated in them. The result of that is that I don’t become aware of my similarities with fictional characters unless they drive me crazy, and I end up in a mental confrontation with myself. But I loved Taeko. I loved the way she articulated her thoughts so deliberately. I loved how fun and imaginative and untethered to the ground she was as a kid, and I loved how playful, gentle and pure hearted she became as an adult. It was the first time that finding a character relatable made me find her comforting instead of unlikable.
The moment that I saw myself in Taeko was in the scene where Taeko tells Toshio about a memory from fifth grade that still makes her question herself years later. At this point in the film, Taeko is faced with a difficult decision about changing her life. She questions her own intentions of why she came to the countryside in the first place, and her thoughts spiral into thinking that her claims to love it there made her a fraud, since she couldn’t imagine herself staying. After feeling like a member of the family, she suddenly feels like an outsider, pretending without really knowing why.
When Toshio asks if she’s alright, she tells him a story about a boy in her fifth grade class who no one liked and the kids gossiped about. Although she refused to ever participate in gossip, and made an effort to be nice to him, on his last day of school, he shook everyone’s hand but hers. This memory haunts her, as she believes he saw through her charade. She was a fraud. She did not like him and treating him kindly was all just as an act that he did not buy into.
Toshio immediately and effortlessly clears this heavy cloud of doubt by pointing out that the boy probably just had a crush on her. He interprets her story in a completely fresh perspective, and makes her realise how simple it all really was. She was not a fraud. There was no charade. She treated an alienated boy nicely, and he liked her. He could show it only in the childish way he knew how; acting tough and being nervous to hold her hand. Trying to be good does not make your intentions an act, it is merely effort. No matter what anyone says, this will always be the most romantic Ghibli movie moment of all to me.
With all that said, why do I not recommend Only Yesterday? Not to be dramatic, but I can’t handle recommending this movie if there’s a chance the person I recommend it to won’t like it. This film is a piece of my heart and a scarily accurate depiction of my mind. I hesitate to recommend it because the thought of someone not liking it is something I would somehow take personally.
Only Yesterday is a beautiful, whimsical, funny and thought provoking film. With its creative and animated expressions of childhood memories and depiction of an active imagination, it is impossibly relatable. The hyokkori hyoutanjima number alone feels like such a universal childhood moment. It is a film I could easily spend hours talking about. My ultimate comfort movie. And I absolutely do not recommend it.