Only Yesterday – Review

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Studio Ghibli — the prestigious Japanese animation team responsible for gems like Spirited Away, Grave of the Fireflies and The Tale of Princess Kaguya — has finally released its magical film, Only Yesterday, in North America after 25 years.

Written and directed by Ghibli co-founder Isao Takahata, Only Yesterday follows Taeko (flawlessly voiced by Star Wars’ Daisy Ridley), a young, single woman living in Tokyo as she journeys to the vast Japanese countryside to harvest safflowers. She appears disenchanted with city life, finding solace and meaning when working among the simpler farming community. Taeko spends much of her train ride reminiscing about her childhood self, attempting to connect past events with the current state of her life via deep introspection.

Takahata’s narrative flowers into a time-shifting personal montage. He gives an enchanting, often heartbreaking look into what it means to be a little girl in Japan. From the stern, albeit loving parents, the lack of empathy surrounding creative children who might not be math experts, and the confusion a girl feels as she reaches puberty, leaning in for that first kiss.

It’s a fine-tuned human drama with the right mix of superb voice acting from the new cast (including Chappie‘s Dev Patel), who’ve lent their talent for this overdubbed version of the 1991 original. The animation is what you’d expect from the stellar folks at Studio Ghibli: sublime, minimal but still hinting at the magical possibilities within the central character’s spirit.

We’ve all felt like Taeko at some point in our lives — yearning for purpose, a change of scenery, or maybe wishing on a dream from the past. The days spent roaming the world, fresh eyed, minds unscathed by the real turbulence of adult life. When the future was a blank slate to fill with the love and wonder only found in a young soul.

As we follow Taeko through the man-made fountains and natural rivers of Japan’s rural beauty, the film never loses its tame pace. Scenes seldom turn melodramatic or border on the fantastical. Only Yesterday simmers strangely familiar to the very end, woven with craftsmanship that encompasses illustration, animation, romance and the human condition.

Taeko’s fate is seemingly perfect. But will her heart still wander?

After 25 years, Takahata’s early, soft-spoken masterpiece has finally hit our screens, but still holds a dear message that is sure to resonate with anyone who experiences this dreamy picture.

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