Studio Ghibli’s Spirited Away became the first non-English-language film to win the Oscar for Best Animated Film in 2003. Ghibli has distributed films in North America since 1985 but refrained from making streaming available until 2019. Spring of 2020 saw Ghibli films coming to Netflix, making the works of this Japanese animation film studio available to audiences in Latin America, Europe, Africa and Asia. These films are marked by humanist themes ranging from family to war to environmental destruction to friendship. While numerous Ghibli films are set in fantastical worlds with spirits, wizard princes and witches, the central conflicts in these films are human. They distil the internal realities of the human experience and show the exploration of not only the self but those unlikely companions who aid that process.
Only Yesterday, directed by Isao Takahata, is one such ghibli film following Taeko, a 27-year-old working in Tokyo who visits the countryside to help with a safflower harvest. The narrative is a simple, non-fantastical one, characteristic of Takahata, and is interspersed with flashbacks to her ten-year-old self. The film revolves around this centre of girlhood and coming to terms with its complex realities in her late twenties.
Erik Wecks, in his account of the film, names it “A simple exploration of human inner life and emotions. Only Yesterday is a film which seems to have much more in common to a French art-house film.” Fans of the French New Wave classic The 400 Blows or more contemporarily, The End of the F**king World will find this to be a similar exploration of the less romanticized realities of coming of age.
Freedom and Femininity
The flashbacks to Taeko’s fifth-grade self reveal the embarrassment faced by the girls when they were educated about menstruation. The girls sitting to the side at P.E were met with revulsion from the boys in class because they believed that they could “catch the period” like a disease. Taeko tries very hard to escape being met with social hostility at school. This flashback stands not only to mark the bizarre social restrictions that come with the onset of menstruation in many cultures but the larger question of the freedom, or lack thereof, afforded to young girls. The ever ongoing debates about the sexualisation of minors through nonsensical dress codes are contextualized through this question. Girlhood is often marked by taking up less and less space because normal parts of the body like shoulders or legs are sexualised and policed, starting from classrooms. Only Yesterday brings this discomfort faced by young girls into the light, illustrating how it remains within the psyche years down the line. The film asks a question of the freedom that derives from masculinity and conversely, the manner in which girls are made to shrink themselves starting at a very tender age.
Watershed Moments of Harshness
Taeko’s father is a stern and quiet man whose word is the final decision on matters concerning the family. When Taeko is approached by a high school theatre group to act for them, her father decides against it even though she has a clear talent for it. This ends all of her dreams about stardom and the world of acting. Seventeen years later, she still remembers the first and last play she acted in and how male authority prevented her from fulfilling that dream.
Another flashback shows her leaving the house without her slippers and her father hitting her across the face. It is a memory that carries with her seventeen years later. Her father’s behaviour dictates how Taeko thinks about the institution of the family as an adult. She equates it with a certain unfreedom where she will not be afforded the comfort that her city job does. Takahata ensures that the feelings of Taeko’s ten-year-old self are not discarded but inform her decisions as a twenty-seven-year-old. He does on the screen what Simon Van Booy did with words when he wrote, “Each year is like putting a new coat over all the old ones. Sometimes I reach into the pockets of my childhood and pull things out.”
The Magnitude of Possibility
This theme is common to many coming of age films, a kind of delight in finding yourself in a world where so much is possible. Takahata illustrates this through very simple scenes like Taeko’s family trying pineapple, an exotic fruit, for the first time or a boy in her class indirectly confessing his love to her. However, Takahata doesn’t indulge in the romanticization of such events, something that is a characteristic of American coming of age films. Wecks asks questions of such portrayals aptly, “The processes which begin in fifth grade for many often remain necessarily incomplete (or rather unprocessed) long into adulthood. How can one understand attraction when facing it for the first time? How can one see the influence of family both good and bad until one has lived for many years on one’s own?” There is a realization in Only Yesterday that girlhood is only a sort of introduction to the world of possibility, not the ending. There are no resolved career or love decisions at the end of Taeko’s youth, not even until the tail end of the film, yet the novelty of these new experiences is weaved into the mundane, something that mirrors real life.
Only Yesterday is an honest account of the many events that make the coming of age of women anywhere in the world. Through watercolour imagery and an absolute abandonment of pretence, the film “is less concerned with presenting a grand thesis about the nature of being human than it is navigating the heartbreaks, triumphs and regrets that make us.” Crafted in a way that makes it impossible not to question the small things that make up your own world, Takahata’s film breaks away from representing girlhood as a highlight reel and showcases the minor events that permeate lifetimes.
Picture Credits: Slant Magazine
Author’s Bio: Saadia Peerzada is an English and Creative Writing major at Ashoka University.
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