Monday, March 14, 2016

Movie Monday: Only Yesterday

It took a while, but the Japanese anime film, "Only Yesterday," finally reached the United States.  It opened to rave reviews January 1 at a single theater in Manhattan, and about 1,000 people went to see it that weekend.  Now it's being shown at art houses around the country.

(I saw it last week because soon I will return to our East Coast suburb, where you can see pretty much any picture you like, as long as it's "Deadpool" or  "Kung Fu Panda 3.")

"Only Yesterday" was released in 1991 by the esteemed Studio Ghibli.  At that time, it was believed the film would appeal mostly to teenage girls and women (doesn't really work for children), but it was the highest grossing movie in the country that year.  (Ghibli, formed in 1985 and now largely dormant, also produced Japan's most popular films in the years 1989, 1992 and 1994; it won the only anime Foreign Film Oscar ever in 2001.)

Disney negotiated for Ghibli international distribution rights in 1996, but it didn't seem to know what to do with "Only Yesterday."  Since then, cineastes have touted the picture from time to time, and dubbed copies have been distributed and broadcast on some television film channels.

The new copy features Daisy Ridley (from the new Star Wars movie) and Dev Patel ("Slumdog Millionaire") speaking the parts of the two main characters.

The Story

Set in 1982 and based on a manga (a Japanese comic form popular with adults as well as children), the movie is about 27-year-old Taeko, a Tokyo woman who decides to spend her vacation harvesting safflower blossoms on a farm.  She finds herself accompanied by memories of her 10-year-old self who wished for but never had a vacation in the country.

The movie weaves back and forth between Taeko's vacation experiences and her mixed memories of her fifth-grade year.  Through the course of the story, she integrates the two realities and understands how she wishes to spend her adult life.

It's a small story, and it is told at a leisurely pace.

That said, "Only Yesterday" is deeply moving.  You find yourself thinking about it long after it has ended.  It is not emotional or sweet or even charming.  It feels honest and true.  (I may be overinterpretting, but I think it even hints, very lightly, that the story's resolution may not be as neat as it seems.)

It is also beautiful.  The animation is unlike what we see in American children's movies -- lush watercolored skies, and evocative images of farmlands and trains.  The characters are cartoons, yes, but their facial expressions express their thoughts just as well as their words do.

On Reflection

I have been trying to imagine "Only Yesterday" in a different format, perhaps as a novel or a movie with real actors.  I don't think it would work as well. In anime form, the story is at once simple, slightly distant and very effective.

The Japanese title of "Only Yesterday," Omoido Poro Poro, translates as "Memories Like Falling Teardrops," which never would work for a U.S. release.  It may be that the Japanese have more of an ear for poetry than we do.

Its director, Isao Takahata, is a universally renowned master of his form; I plan to seek out some of his other work.

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