Few film experiences are as rewarding as discovering a Ghibli film for the first time. Isao Takahata’s Only Yesterday was released the same year that I was born. But it holds much more significance than that for me. I’m nearing the age of the protagonist, Taeko. She’s 27, the film’s 27th anniversary is next July, and my 27th birthday is in January.
Taeko is an unmarried working girl, like yours truly. She has that in common with 27 year old Noriko of Ozu’s Late Spring (1949). But while the latter film is quietly devastating, detailing how Noriko is pressured to marry even though she’s content to remain single and look after her widowed father, Taeko isn’t bombarded with constant questions or suggestions about her marriage prospects.
Social mores have shifted today so that I’m not constantly asked about getting married, although my mother has told me I should think about it. I still cling to my childish fantasy that I’ll capture the heart of a boy who doesn’t even know I exist. It doesn’t matter if he’s a current crush; I am always falling in love with people who don’t know me. And probably never will.
Taeko works at a company in Tokyo and leaves on vacation for the countryside, where she’ll be helping with the safflower harvest. During her journey by train, she begins to recall vivid childhood memories. The first is unremarkable at a quick glance. She begs her parents to visit the country as all her friends are doing for their vacations. The family visits bathhouses and Taeko is so enraptured by one that she passes out in the water. Memories both pleasant and unpleasant visit her; brushes with a first crush; learning about her period; the frustrations of her mother and sisters over her poor grades; the first and only time she was slapped by her father.
The way the film transitions from Taeko’s childhood to her adulthood is seamless. She says that she never meant to bring her fifth grade self along, but there she is, as present and real as anyone, and not merely a memory. Taeko wonders if she’s been true to that little girl; if she’s been true to herself.
I’ve been thinking about my younger self quite often. I think I would disappoint her. Depression has fooled me into believing that my younger self wouldn’t like me at all. I’ve conjured up in my mind a sneering girl who thinks I’m just lazy. I have no reason to be sad, and therefore, no right to be. She would never understand how someone as buoyant, confident, and smart as her would grow up to be such an unholy mess of a girl.
But then I think of the sum total of who I am as a person, and even with depression, I know I’m not so bad. Maybe like Taeko, I carry around my fifth grade self even though I don’t mean to. In the fifth grade I had a formidable teacher that everyone in the school feared. She was legendary in our family because all the older kids had been in her class and they always spoke about how mean she was. But I became one of her favorite students. Like Taeko, I was a dismal math student, and it was very difficult for me to catch on. But thankfully, my mother was always sympathetic.
Only Yesterday is a quiet film, detailing a woman’s interior life. This is seen as something vital and remarkable. Animated films like Studio Ghibli are few, and honestly, not every one has to be a quiet exploration of mature themes. But I can understand why people want more adult animated films, it’s just silly to demand that they all be raunchy or R rated. They can be this too.