Nostalgia for Our Past Selves

Only Yesterday (1991)

© 1991 Hotaru Okamoto – Yuko Tone – Studio Ghibli – NH

Isao Takahata’s tranquil and reflective Only Yesterday (1991) opens with Taeko Okajima (Miki Imai) traveling via a night train from Tokyo to rural Yamagata. It’s her first trip away from the city in ages, having become engrossed in her career. The excursion to the countryside is to see her sister’s family during the annual safflower harvest, though the greater purpose unveils itself to be more than the need for rest and rejuvenation. Rather, it offers her the opportunity to look inwards and address if the younger version of herself—so willful and influenced by wild ambition—would be impressed with who she’s become. With an immense amount of compassionate introspection, Only Yesterday is a monumental display of self-healing and forgiveness. 

Vacations—at least on film—often allude to greater rumblings beneath the surface. These trips often mean more than what they seem, the vacation itself a Trojan horse, hiding greater themes and meanings. Look no further than Charlotte Wells’s Aftersun (2002) or Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere (2010)—both of which center on down-on-their-luck fathers spending time with their daughters,while weaving stories about greater senses of grief and loneliness. On a very different type of cinematic vacation, Alfonso Cuarón’s Y tu mamá también (2001) and its visceral heat refuses to diminish the core story of a woman grappling with a cruel fate while two young men come to terms with their sexuality. Vacations are used to heal from breakups and to find ourselves. Vacations mean everything from sun-baked coastal views to rubbish and gray countryside where two men hunker down to escape their impoverished reality (à la 1987’s Withnail & I)

Takahata’s work largely internalizes experiences, his character’s emotions weighing heavy on them in silence. In Only Yesterday, the crushing concerns of life’s bigger questions—careers, aspirations, romance—are continually delayed by the introduction of new friends and stunning countryside views, which happily take over Taeko’s thoughts. Throughout her stay in Yamagata, Taeko is confronted with a melancholy borne from nostalgia, wistful for her childhood self while grappling with ongoing “adult” ruminations. The questions she harbors internally, as opposed to the questions leveled at her by societal expectations of women her age, don’t just evaporate upon arriving at the countryside. Instead, they dredge up forgotten memories, both good and bad. On the train ride, she recalls a summer from early childhood when she seethed with jealousy over her classmates getting to go on a big family trip outside of the city for the holiday. Later, shown in vignettes, she’ll recall the tangy bitterness of tasting a pineapple with her family, and the humiliation of talking about menstruation for the first time. 

For all the bad or embarrassing memories that childhood recalls, Only Yesterday excels at highlighting the beauty and camaraderie of youth. A particular highlight comes after an invigorating baseball game, when young Taeko is courted by a boy she likes. While walking home on a stripped-down street lane, illuminated by the bleeding sunset and shadows cast by the freshly flickering street lamps, her feet leave the ground and she floats home on a heart-shaped cloud, blissful from the attention and the strong, overpowering emotions of a pre-teen. She’s become weightless. 

This freedom and hopefulness she possessed as a child serves as a striking contrast to how we meet her in 1982. Her present-day version is romantically reserved, an observer more often than an active participant, happy to listen and learn if not actively engaged. She’s become a woman who attempts to fit a mold. This version of Taeko engages with how many of us shift and change over time as we begin to limit ourselves in our emotional output as we grow older and mature, less prone to fanciful daydreams. 

There’s a deliberate contrast between the two timelines, allowing them to remain distinct. The past and present contain greater,, depth due to that contrast while still resulting in a fully interwoven picture. The flashbacks keep the color and illustrations concentrated on what part of the moment is remembered, a method of animation showcasing just how much of the world Taeko is able to take in by how far the color reaches. In the standout scene where she floats home, the shades and highlights slowly expand as she flies, the emotions she’s experiencing scaled up to show that they’re so big they spill off the frame. 

Taeko’s world as an adult is more visually rich. The fields she works on are endless and the landscapes are tinged with a sense of vibrancy, allowing another visual representation of her current state of being. While living in a town abundant with life, she has the capability to grow beyond what her city lifestyle demands of her. Cinematographer Hisao Shirai—who would later work as director of photography on films such as Neon Genesis Evangelion: The End of Evangelion (1997), and Perfect Blue (1997)— envelops the viewer and the characters in these present-day sequences, making sure to capture every detail, mirroring the direction of Takahata, who sought the minutia of rural lifestyle. A sequence where characters watch the sunrise in real time captures this patience. The unrushed scene—a wonder of intricate animation—illuminates Taeko’s need to slow her pace and engage with downtime. She’s using her vacation as a chance to reconcile her two selves, and in doing so, allows herself to enjoy things as simple and boundless as the rise and fall of the sun. 

The contrasting elements are used in the character designs by animator Yoshifumi Kondō. This is especially true in the present-day 1982 setting, with the voice actors having recorded their lines first, allowing the animators to fit the animation with their words—a style more often used in Western animation. The characters’ realistic designs are amplified by this practice, the musculature and movement of their faces able to be captured by studying the actors while they record their lines. This is a striking difference from many of the film’s Japanese contemporaries, who tend to animate first and record dialogue later. By recording first, Western-animated films are able to give the voice artists more leeway and freedom to play with the roles, while the animation first, dialogue second practice in Japanese works creates a quicker and cheaper turnaround. 

The greatest distinction this practice creates, though, is by only being used in the present-day scenes, with the more traditional Japanese approach being used for the flashbacks. The differing techniques render the young characters with a stylistic approach more befitting modern anime standards, with exaggerated features that steer away from realism. Most significant, however, is that it also creates a contrast between times. This isn’t just apparent with the obvious age differences, or even simply how they look, but in the way time wears on a person once they’re out of adolescence. In a way, Taeko’s childhood is a fantasy to her, experiences that happened to a different version of herself. Much like how Takahata utilizes space to demonstrate how memories are recalled, the animation and character designs create a similar effect by implying that the way we remember ourselves isn’t always the most accurate, either.

All of this boils down to one of the strongest elements of the film: Takahata’s superb animation and distinctive artistic style. His use of space in film and how he manages the frames of his work (especially in Only Yesterday, but also in The Tale of the Princess Kaguya and My Neighbor The Yamadas) often utilize blank space and white backgrounds. He brandishes this artistic technique especially when focusing on memories or moments where the characters’ worlds are defined by a singular emotion. It’s a practice we see him distill throughout his work most often when the story involves youthful bliss—not to be confused with naïveté, but instead a world untouched by cynicism or hardship. 

In his glorious, endlessly moving final feature, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2013), this method is first depicted in the early moments of the story as the titular Kaguya is taking some of her very first steps. As she wobbles around her home and its gardens, the screen is hardly filled,  a greater percentage of it being white space, only a corner overflowing with vibrancy and the graceful flourishes of watercolor-inspired animation. The result is a visual manifestation of how Kaguya currently sees the world that surrounds her,little more than the small patch of land they inhabit, the home she loves, and the parents she adores. Utilizing this method, and honing in on just what Kaguya can see, makes the memory fonder. This in turn means that, once her world expands, every corner of the screen drips with extravagance. A prisoner of the hopes and dreams of her parents as lavish gifts are thrust upon her, the warmth has been sucked out of the screen. Her world might’ve expanded on a shallow level, but just because the space is filled up doesn’t mean it’s been given greater substance. 

This technique is used as more of a stylistic approach in a film like as My Neighbor the Yamadas (1999) and hardly used—if at all—in films Pom Poko (1994) and Grave of the Fireflies (1988). In Only Yesterday, the usage is similar to Kaguya in how it’s wielded as a method to capture the essence of the moment. In this case, it’s Taeko experiencing the emotions of a first crush, which physically lifts her into the air as she becomes overcome with glee. The rest of the world at this moment bleeds away. The minimalism is best depicted through her character as she reflects on childhood, inspired throughout her vacation to challenge her set goals as she begins to flirt with the idea of seeking out paths that differ from the one she’s on. 

Takahata visualizes that, and puts memory to page, by confining imagery to lingering bits and pieces. A fitting art style for a film that deals so much in memories. We aren’t fully-formed individuals in childhood, and our memory follows suit. The nostalgia felt when we look back at adolescence is more about emotion as opposed to an image—we can’t recall time and places with the accuracy of a snapshot. What we remember are the sunburns and mosquito bites, the late nights playing in our rooms as our parents drank and laughed out on the porch, their voices carrying through the night as we positioned the fans in precautious placements so as to lull ourselves to sleep. Memories are the smells of hardware stores we’d be dragged to on weekends, and the comfort of warm laundry being dumped on you during summer rain. It’s the way dirt paths feel beneath bare feet, and the deep flush of embarrassment when you have a bad argument with your parents, words slipping out before you can capture them behind your teeth. 

In Takeo’s present day, her world expands as she travels to the countryside; the warmth and beauty of the rural land, the tranquility it offers, the catalyst to unplugging all of these forgotten memories that shaped her into who she is. Just like sounds and smells, places unlock similar nostalgic emotions, and as her world opens up, her brain, too, is able to slow down enough in order to reflect. 

The film’s visual lyricism captures a nostalgia that is so often tied to memories shared with family and loved ones. When Taeko first travels away, she begins to wonder if her childhood self would be happy with who she’d become, especially as she hasn’t yet achieved her youthful wish of living a quiet life in the countryside. This self-reflection offers her true transcendence; she utilizes her time away from the bustle of city life, and the work and social expectations that come from Japanese society, in order to look inwards and ascertain what it is exactly that she wants from life. 

The maturity and refinement of Only Yesterday’s production is a vehicle for the character’s (and audience’s) deconstruction of self. Taeko is given the opportunity to experience the dreams she had as a young girl and reconcile them with who she is now. With threads of romance throughout, Takahata’s classic is as busy in realism as it is experimental. The result is something tangible, something visceral, the type of story that we can’t help but feel deep in our chest as it gives us the space to question what the 12-year-old version of ourselves would say if they were to see where we are now. Wistful in prose, whimsical in the visuals, meticulous in the direction, Only Yesterday is a soft-spoken reminder that to discover greater elements about ourselves, or core attributes buried over time as we harden, we need the time and space to do so, removed from all the noise.