“The past isn't dead. It isn't even past.” W. Faulkner
“Only Yesterday” is an animated Japanese movie from Isao Takahata that explores the ways in which a young woman's past sometimes seems more present than her present. The film is from 1991, but it was only recently dubbed into English and released here.
27-year-old Taeko (voiced by Daisy Ridley) is a single gal living and working in Tokyo. Her real passion, though, is going out to the country to work on a farm. The film picks up with her preparing for her second “vacation” at the farm. Meanwhile, she has frequent flashbacks to her experiences of 5th grade. (It takes a little bit to realize that we are jumping between 2 time periods.)
You would assume that something dramatic happened during Taeko's 5th grade year for her to be sharing all these flashbacks with us, but, in fact, it's just the usual 5th grade stuff. She has her first, awkward crush. The girls learn about menstruation, and the boys tease them about it. At home there is sibling rivalry, and Taeko's father is emotionally distant. These seemingly quotidian events were apparently a highly formative period in Taeko's life, and at the age of 27, she continues to replay these memories.
In the present, Taeko arrives at the farm, where she meets an intense, young farmer named Toshio (Dev Patel). The two fall in love, but it is difficult for Taeko to process the feeling without first working through some of these 5th grade memories and sharing them with Toshio.
Does it get tiresome for Toshio, listening to this girl prattle on about 5th grade? If so, he doesn't show it. I, on the other hand, got a bit restless during this 2-hour, action-free movie. Nonetheless, I can see the value of this quiet exploration of the persistence of memory and how small things make us who we are. Parts of the film are quite funny, especially the bit about menstruation, which may be the best handling of the subject since Judy Blume. All of Toshio's talk about organic farming goes on a bit long, but there's a fascinating bit about how safflower is used to make red cosmetics. The animated countryside is stunning, and Daisy Ridley's voice acting is quite good.
“Only Yesterday” is as talky as they get. It tried even the patience of a Whit Stillman fan like myself. It's worth checking out, though, if you are into introspection in a big way.
3 stars out of 5