Kernel Rating (out of 5):
MPAA Rating: PG Length: 120 minutes
Age Appropriate For: 12+. This animated film focuses on a woman in her mid-20s considering her current life and her memories of being in fifth grade, so the film jumps between two storylines. There is some mocking of her being unmarried, some class-related struggles between city vs. country life, parents who smoke, a few instances of parents striking their children, some bullying, and a subplot from her childhood about sexual education, puberty, and girls beginning menstruation.
Studio Ghibli’s ‘Only Yesterday’ is one of the animation powerhouse’s films aimed primarily at female viewers, with a protagonist who questions her journey in the world and how her childhood shaped her adulthood. It’s a slow-paced, intentional story that is emotionally honest.
By Roxana Hadadi
Most animated films about female characters trying to find their way in the world are about princesses or other out-of-the-ordinary characters with magic powers, special responsibilities, or other unique capabilities. “Only Yesterday” is not that kind of movie – its depiction of a young woman considering her life and the impact of her childhood is quieter, more intentional, and thoroughly anti-flashy. But there’s an emotional honesty in “Only Yesterday” that’s hard to come by, and worth experiencing.
The film from Japanese animation powerhouse Studio Ghibli tells the story of Taeko (voiced by Daisy Ridley, of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”), a 27-year-old office worker who doesn’t really fit in with her life in Tokyo. She works an unfulfilling job, where when she asks for time off to visit the country, the man reviewing her request sneers, “Break up with your boyfriend or something?” She speaks to her sisters on the phone, but they badger her for not being married yet. The outside pressure about her relationship status is constant.
But for Taeko, marriage isn’t a priority – instead, she has a passion for being in the country, surrounded by nature, working in fields and harvesting crops. When her sister asks “What’s wrong with settling down instead of doing all these wacky things?”, it’s clear her family doesn’t understand Taeko at all.
How did Taeko become who she is? During her vacation to Yamagata, where she’ll be visiting a brother-in-law’s family and helping them harvest safflower, Taeko is consumed by memories of her fifth-grade self, when parts of her personality – and how her family dynamics revolved around her – became clear. So “Only Yesterday” becomes two storylines: one following Taeko in present day, as she grows close to her relatives and begins a friendship with the handsome farmer Toshio (Dev Patel, of “The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel”), and the other back in fifth grade, when she experienced her first crush, suffered bullying because of newfound knowledge about puberty, and understood how much her parents distanced themselves from her.
Those memories are sometimes tough to sit through because of their content – like when Taeko’s father slaps her in the face, or when her mother snaps, “Taeko’s not a normal kid!” – but they so often reinforce who Taeko is now that they’re central to her and our understanding of her identity. It’s a strength of “Only Yesterday” that it spends so much time building who Taeko is, even if the scenes aren’t always remarkable. Is all of life extraordinary? It isn’t, but it shapes us regardless, and that’s the point “Only Yesterday” makes so well.
As always with Studio Ghibli movies, the animation is engaging and beautiful, especially in the country scenes where Taeko and her family pick safflower, with bees and butterflies fluttering around them, or in a memory where Taeko, after her first interaction with a crush, seems to float and fly and swim through the air in bliss. “In the end, somehow you get by,” Toshio tells Taeko, and that’s the message to walk away from “Only Yesterday” with – that sometimes who we are and what we do can be enough for ourselves, and for those who love us, too.
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