Time and space: Exploring memory in Only Yesterday
Ability to leave you emotionally ruined10
Nathanael Smith | On 01, Feb 2020
With Studio Ghibli films now available on Netflix UK, we delve into our archives to look back at what makes them so magical. This article was originally published in 2014.
The title of Studio Ghibli’s quietest and most mature film immediately hints at its melancholic preoccupation with how fleeting memories are. It feels like a glimpse of the phrase “it seems like only yesterday”. Memory and time play tricks on you and events from decades ago can feel immediate and real, shaping the decisions you make today. It seems like only yesterday that childhood was full of dreams, when awkward romantic encounters felt like the whole world, when life was a juggling act between grades and food and friendship and trying to grow up.
Only Yesterday explores these well-trodden themes, but without the cheap nostalgia of modern American cinema. Instead, it is a formally and structurally audacious exploration of memory that quietly prods and pokes at the way we all view our pasts. The story plays out in two periods, the first following an adult Taeko, as she holidays in rural Yamagata Prefecture. While her colleagues travel abroad for summer, she works tirelessly at a farm and befriends the locals there. The second story follows Taeko as a 10-year old in 1966 and captures moments of her childhood in slight vignettes about romance, puberty, maths and more.
Director Isao Takahata is a master of understanding white space – the absences on screen in an animation, where it seems as though the artists have just stopped drawing. In My Neighbours the Yamadas and The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, you see this used to dazzling effect, where the absences draw the eye to a very exact point on the screen. It strips away the unnecessary and expresses emotion through the very way it is drawn. In Only Yesterday, however, this is taken to a whole new level, as the white space becomes the thematic and emotional core of the film.
27-year old Taeko exists in a beautifully drawn, highly detailed world; fields sway with richly coloured safflowers, city stations hum with busy activity and the sun rises over mist-strewn landscapes. 10-year old Taeko’s world, however, arrives in glimpses and flashes of memory. Sometimes, as much as two thirds of the frame are left blank, as if all Taeko can remember of that moment is the expression on a face or the feeling of isolation. The more detail in the flashbacks, the more clearly she can remember it, whereas the sparser frames leave space for the emotional weight of the moment. Rarely has the fragility of memory been portrayed so effectively in purely visual terms.
Astonishingly, although Only Yesterday plays this one tune beautifully, it isn’t the only melody in the film’s songbook. The film also delicately explores the reason Taeko has run away to the Japanese countryside in the first place, interrogating her patronising affection for the simplicity of rural life. Her farmer friends defy bumpkin imagery with philosophical discussions, while the idea of nature as “untamed” is soundly debunked. In the flashbacks, we explore how girls react to being taught about puberty with the kind of astute insight that has made all of Ghibli’s heroines so rounded and interesting. The role of fathers, the pressure of achievement and the anxieties of childhood are just some of the threads woven delicately into Takahata’s tapestry.
Even while juggling so many ideas, Takahata never hurries the pace. Much like the visual absences in his use of white space, the director is similarly unafraid of silence and stillness. Often, only one element in the frame moves, whether that’s a butterfly fluttering across a viewpoint or the sun rising over the hill as the farmers stand in a state of spiritual awe. So although Only Yesterday wrestles with big themes, it never gets weighed down by them. In fact, Takahata’s touch is so light that the film seems deceptively simple at first glance. Only Yesterday rewards repeat viewings, as you grapple with the way each scene contains layers upon layers of emotional meaning and resonance. By the finale (which features that most irritating of Ghibli tropes, the cheesy emotive ballad) it builds to a climax that would be melodrama in any other story, but here feels completely earned and entirely heart-stirring.
Only Yesterday is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.
Note: This was originally published in 2016. For our full Studio Ghibli retrospective, see The Magic of Miyazaki.