“Only Yesterday” is my favorite Studio Ghibli film, hands down. Its story is simple: Taeko, a 27-year-old woman living in Tokyo, takes a couple of days off from her mundane job in the city to work in the countryside, where she helps farmers as they prepare for the safflower harvest. Compared to the premises of other Ghibli movies, you might think that “Only Yesterday” would be boring, but you’d be sorely mistaken.
Throughout the movie, Taeko becomes increasingly conflicted with the path she is on in life. As she takes a train out to the country, she is overwhelmed with memories of her childhood. The story switches back and forth between present-day and fifth grade, and we get to experience all the moments from Taeko’s past that she seems to be hung up on. The memories shown appear uneventful, like the first time she tried pineapple or the first time she performed in her school’s play. What makes “Only Yesterday” so special, though, is that it finds beauty in the ordinary.
The way memory is expressed in the movie is simple yet moving. The sheer power of Ghibli animation is well known, but in “Only Yesterday,” the style is particularly fitting. Adult and child Taeko will often appear together on-screen, showing how Taeko still very much feels that her younger self is a part of her identity later in life. As the scenery changes from city life to the countryside and from present-day to Taeko’s childhood, the animation blends the two storylines together seamlessly.
My favorite scene is a memory in which Taeko reminisces about her fifth-grade crush. The two of them stand motionless across from each other on the street corner as they each wait for the other to start talking. The scenery is practically blank, all white, except for the faded orange sunset. He asks her if she prefers sunny or cloudy days, and they realize they both like cloudy days best. And then she runs off, dashing up a staircase that leads up to the sky. She’s shown swimming through a background of hazy pastels, and she looks so happy. It’s breathtaking, and it makes me cry. I don’t know why — it just feels so true. (I wish my fifth-grade crush experience went half that well.)
That’s not the only scene that makes me cry, though. Watching this movie makes me feel like I’m an adult reflecting on my entire life, stuck in a pattern of reminiscing and wishing to be somewhere else. I know that might sound ridiculous, but I feel so attached to Taeko and the different people in her life. She’s supposed to be moving on, but she can’t. And I have to say, rewatching “Only Yesterday” at this stage of my life hit a little too close to home.
I know I’m only a freshman in college with plenty ahead of me, but I relate to Taeko in feeling completely stuck in time. I’ll have spent my first year of college at home after also graduating from high school at home. I’m constantly reminded of things from high school, middle school and even elementary school as I do college classes in my childhood bedroom. “Only Yesterday” captures the intense nostalgia that comes with being consumed by one’s memories; they strike Taeko in her everyday life as she does everyday things. Taeko is unable to move on with her life until she accepts her past, both the pain her family caused her and her own regrets. Until she can live in the moment, she is stuck looking backward instead of forward.
“Only Yesterday” has a perfect ending. I won’t spoil it, but I will say that the music combined with the animation somehow makes me feel devastated and happy at the same time. It perfectly captures the themes of letting go and growing up, and while watching it is a bittersweet experience, it brings me peace.
Daily Arts Writer Judith Lawrence can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.