The Past & Present in Studio Ghibli’s Only Yesterday

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Studio Ghibli’s Only Yesterday (1991) illustrates Taeko Okajima (adult voiced by Miki Ima/child voiced by Youko Honna) moments of remembering her childhood and the effects it had on her present adulthood. Her memories inform the entirety of the film; wherein both the past and present are placed together, taking the viewer on a journey through her memories as she recalls them. Initially, the film juxtaposes Taeko’s present alongside her memories of her year throughout grade 5, eliciting a literal elliptical effect on the narrative. However, her memories are lighter in colour tones and features fewer details of her surroundings, while her present is brought to life through detailed illustrations, offering us a contrasts between both.

Directed and written by Isao Takahata, Only Yesterday focuses on Taeko’s perspective throughout her journey from Tokyo to rural Japan therein immersing us within Taeko’s  point of view, juxtaposing her present and past without any explicit punctuation. This expressionistic form of storytelling is heightened by individual moments of fantasy that transport her feelings directly onto screen. This happens during her exchange with school days crush Hirota (voiced by Yuuki Masuda) after their baseball game. Taeko promptly leaves the ball game in order to avoid Hirota, however, he runs after her from a different path ahead of her, and stands from afar, waiting to see her reaction. She apprehensively approaches him, standing in front of him, facing away.

He asks her, “Rainy days, cloudy days, sunny days… which do you like?”

Her reply, “…cloudy days.”

His remark, “Oh, then we’re alike.”

Smiles run across their faces and both head off onto different directions, while framing Taeko from behind her running down the street and up into the sky seamlessly. She continues to fly through the sky, with the background transforming from the sky and onwards through colours, eventually transporting her home, laying down contently. Running for approx. 6 min. flips the film’s approach of the slice of life genre with hyper-realistic flourishes that elevates Taeko’s emotions far above basic tangible realism that becomes a consequence by adhering to a single style of storytelling. Contrasting with similar moments throughout Only Yesterday, the film remains grounded within a realistic portrayal of her daily existence by Taeko providing narration, reframing each moment with affirmation of fulfillment  that’s developed through personal retrospective.

Only Yesterday succeeds in encompassing the melancholy and joys felt throughout childhood that help shape, but does not necessarily define our present. The past looms over each character in Only Yesterday, while their present selves are shaping their future.

Written by Angel Perez

Media Enthusiast