Review for Only Yesterday
At one time, I thought this was a gap in my Ghibli Blu-ray collection that would never be filled. Isao Takahata’s wistful look at childhood through the memories of a career woman at a crossroads in her life, was licensed for release by Disney along with the rest of the Ghibli catalogue, but because of a conversation about menstruation in the story, they refused to release it dubbed or in any form without a significant edit, and Ghibli insist that their output remains unmolested after the initial disastrous treatment of Nausicaa by Streamline. Only Yesterday was never released in the US by Disney, and in the UK, Optimum gave it a subtitle only release on DVD. The chances of a subtitle only release on Blu-ray looked slim. But then Disney’s contract with Ghibli expired, and GKids picked up the catalogue, and when it came to Only Yesterday, they finally gave it a dub, 25 years after its original theatrical release. And so I can finally plug that gap on my Ghibli Blu-ray shelf.
Taeko Okajima was a city kid born and bred, from a family that had lived in the city for generations, so her dreams as a ten-year old of a vacation to the countryside was never fulfilled. Now aged 27, the office worker can finally take her vacation time in the country, working on a farm, thanks to her brother-in-law’s family. But this summer will be different. For one thing, she’s at something of a crossroads in her life, and for another, her ten-year-old self will be tagging along for the ride, as her summer is coloured by memories of who she used to be, her ten-year-old self’s hopes and dreams, and the experiences she had growing up.
Only Yesterday gets a 1.85:1 widescreen 1080p transfer on this disc, and it offers a nice, cinematic viewing experience. The image is clear and sharp, you get great colours, although the detail is as good as you might expect from a traditionally animated 2D film from 1991. There’s no CG finesse applied here to add to the visuals. There’s a delightful contrast between the modern era sequences with their realistic and bold colour palette, and the flashback sequences with their more dreamlike pastel colours. The print is nice and clean, with the odd moment of filmic flicker, but grain has been visibly minimised, although not to the detriment of the image. The animation is excellent, especially when it comes to character animation and facial expressions.
You have the choice between PCM 2.0 Stereo English and Japanese, with optional translated subtitles, and Hard of Hearing English subtitles. The disc defaults to the Japanese audio with translated subs. The volume levels are a little low, easily remedied, and the soundtrack offers a nice, gentle experience, with likeable and fitting, naturalistic voice actor performances. The music is sparsely used but effectively so. The subtitles are timed accurately and are free of typos. I didn’t try too much of the dub, but with the exception of Dev Patel, who voices his character in an accent different to that of everyone else, it seemed acceptable enough.
This is a combo release, with two discs on each inner face of a Blu-ray Amaray style case, wrapped in an o-card slipcover that repeats the sleeve art and blurb.
The DVD presents the film in 1.85:1 anamorphic with a PAL runtime of 114 minutes, and with DD 2.0 English and Japanese audio. The only extra feature is the multi-angle storyboards.
The Blu-ray boots to an animated menu, and here you can see those storyboards as a picture in picture extra.
The Making of Only Yesterday is the Studio Ghibli featurette which lasts 46:20 and is presented in 576i PAL format.
Behind the Scenes with the Voice Cast lasts 7:47 and is in HD, and has interviews with the English voice cast.
Interview with the English Dub Team lasts 16:30 and is a stage event Q & A with the GKids team.
Finally you get 7:34 of Foreign Trailers and TV Spots.
I absolutely adore Only Yesterday, and it ranks up there as one of my favourite Ghibli films. It’s deceptively brilliant, and you only realise just how good it is after the end credits have rolled. It feels like such an ephemeral story, a young woman at a crossroads in her life, an existential crisis that she’s barely aware of, having her choices influenced by memories of who she was, what she was like when she was ten years old. And it’s all wrapped up in a slice-of-life narrative that hardly speaks of pressing drama or heart-rending histrionics. In some aspects Only Yesterday is just as whimsical as another Takahata slice-of-life film, My Neighbours the Yamadas, but it’s when you take Only Yesterday as a whole that you realise just what a delicate, but effective character narrative it weaves.
Only Yesterday is based on a manga by Hotaru Okamoto and Yuko Tone, the big difference being that the manga is a slice of life piece that tells little vignettes in 10 year old Taeko’s life, a nostalgic reflection on growing up, and the common experiences that people had as children. It’s not the sort of manga that can easily be adapted to a cinematic narrative, but Isao Takahata’s masterstroke was creating the framing story of adult Taeko looking back on her childhood, as she comes to make a decision that she doesn’t even realise she’s considering at first. It’s a layer of narrative that makes the movie transcend the source material and renders it one of Studio Ghibli’s finest films.
Only Yesterday was made in 1991, and with adult Taeko’s story taking place in the early 1980s, it’s fair to say that the nostalgic element came with the 1960s flashbacks to young Taeko’s childhood. However, with the passage of years, the film now offers a double hit of nostalgia, with adult Taeko’s world delightfully analogue. We learn that she’s a city girl born and bred, and it’s only through her in-laws that she can now indulge her childhood dream of spending a vacation in the country, although in this film it’s the second year that she’s spent time working in the fields and enjoying a different, rural pace of life. She knows her in-laws now and has a history with them. What makes this second year different is that she’s constantly being reminded of her 10-year-old self, and is understandably curious as to why.
Growing up is a universal experience, and even if Only Yesterday has a female perspective, there are still commonalities that everyone can relate too. One of the early scenes involves Taeko getting her dream of eating fresh pineapple, only no-one knowing quite how to prepare it, and the inevitable disappointment when it doesn’t compare to the canned and sweetened treat that she’s used to. There was a time in the sixties when fresh produce was seasonal and usually local, and imported fruit and veg were short-lived and expensive delicacies. Watching this scene reminds me of the time my family tried starfruit, for the one and only time. I can also relate to the ten-year-old’s tantrum, and the unexpected chastisement from her father. In my family too, it was my mother who delivered the punishment, my father rarely raised his hand, so a slap from him was a big, big deal. There is a lot of warmth, humour and nostalgia to the childhood sequences in Only Yesterday, and these are very appealing vignettes.
Then there are the adult Taeko’s experiences, escaping the humdrum routine of a Tokyo office worker for 10-odd days ‘relaxation’ in the country. I suppose it is relaxing to work at something complete different than you’re used to, and amid her recollections of childhood, she’s in the fields doing the traditional work of harvesting safflowers, from which dye is made. There is the tactile feeling of getting back to ‘nature’, the satisfaction of seeing the fruits of your labours first-hand, and also the sense of community that you have, the intimacy and warmth of working with family and friends. When she’s tempted to stay, to completely change her life, she naturally has a sense of guilt, thinking that if she’s been treating this life as a vacation, then it must mean that she doesn’t take it seriously. It’s by recalling what she was like when she was 10, when her future wasn’t set, and the world was infinite with possibilities, that she’s able to make the decision with perspective.
What’s genius about the film is the way that as it progresses, it begins to blend reality with memory, in a way that would be familiar to anyone who has seen Satoshi Kon’s Millennium Actress. Only Yesterday is a little more subtle about it, gradually bringing adult Taeko and ten-year-old Taeko’s worlds together, all to deliver what must be the most perfect ending in cinema. Only Yesterday is a subtle, whimsical film that is rich in nostalgia, and replete with delightful characters, but is understated with its emotion and drama, and practically deceptive when it comes to unfolding its narrative, which makes it all the more surprising at just how cathartic and moving the film’s conclusion is.
Only Yesterday is one the best Ghibli films in their catalogue. It’s great cinema, masterful filmmaking that you really do have to experience, and to finally have it on Blu-ray gives me a warm glow.