There’s a scene in Isao Takahata’s Only Yesterday where a family sit at their dinner table staring at a fresh pineapple. They’ve never seen one before, with its spiky leaves and prickly skin. “They do have some strange fruits in those hot countries,” the grandmother murmurs. A series of close-ups lingers over the details: carefully slicing off the skin, cutting it into quarters, removing the woody paler bit at the centre with a flick of the knife, dividing the yellow flesh into neat triangles.
Finally, the eating begins. Taeko, the youngest daughter and the story’s heroine, takes a generous bite. She chews thoughtfully. “It’s tougher than I was expecting,” she says between mouthfuls.
“It’s nothing to rave about, is it?” One of her older sisters adds.
“Let’s face it, bananas are still king of the fruits,” another sister says.
It’s one example of how Takahata uses animation to cast a new perspective on the everyday. In his previous feature, 1988’s Grave Of The Fireflies, the director explored the ravages of war on the young, and its effect was as devastating as a stiletto to the gut. Only Yesterday, first released in 1991, sees Takahata in a more reflective but no less observant mood. It’s the simple story of Taeko, now a 27-year-old singleton who lives and works in Tokyo. We join her as she takes a working holiday in rural Yamagata, far away from the bustle of the city. To the bemusement of her colleagues, who recommend a stay in a luxury hotel, Taeko wants to spend her 10 days’ break working in the fields, picking the flowers that have been used to make red dye for generations. It’s all part of Taeko’s romantic longing for a lifestyle she imagines to be simpler yet somehow more honest, more connected to nature and the soil.
As Taeko travels to Yamagata on an overnight train, her mind travels back into the past: back to when she was in the fifth grade. Takahata subtly, brilliantly moves between Taeko’s 60s childhood and 80s adulthood with almost invisible edits; at first, the way we discern between past and present through the soft watercolours of the backgrounds in Taeko’s childhood scenes. The use of white space suggests a haziness, which contrasts vividly with the thick paint and intense colours of the present. Gradually, however, the two flow together until, by the story’s conclusion, past and present flow together.
The film’s second half introduces Taeko’s growing friendship with Toshio, an organic farmer who’s turned his back on office work to commit to the kind of life Taeko’s only dreamed about. Toshio’s grandmother suggests that Taeko could do the same: quit her job in Tokyo, marry Toshio and settle down as a farmer. Which poses the question: does Taeko really want to adapt to the harsh realities of rural life, or is she only smitten with the romantic idea of it?
Only Yesterday is a film of quiet realisations and subtle disappointments rather than gasp-inducing moments of drama. The English voice dub, sensitively handled by Daisy Ridley and Dev Patel as Taeko and Toshio respectively, underlines the film’s whisper-quiet approach. The gentle air, not to mention the two-hour duration, may put some fans of Ghibli’s more fantastical output off. But then again, there’s also something soothing and delightful about the time Takahata takes to explore the interior lives of his characters. Through them, he describes how the past informs the present, and how memories can flash into our minds like tiny packages despatched from the past.
Taeko’s an interesting twist on the Ghibli heroine; as a child, she’s bad at maths and fussy about what she eats. Tragedy is entirely absent from her family background, but there’s nevertheless something poignant about her distant relationship with her salaryman father, who spends most of his time at the dinner table reading a newspaper, or the way her sisters fuss over her inability to divide fractions. And then there are those occasional moments where Takahata does let a tiny ray of the fantastical shine through, such as a captivating sequence where Taeko develops a crush on one of her school friends.
For a moment, the entire movie swoons with her. As in life, these moments are all the more resonant because they’re so fleeting.
Only Yesterday is out in UK cinemas on the 3rd June courtesy of StudioCanal.