I watched Only Yesterday (Omohide Poroporo) simply because it's a Studio Ghibli offering. It's like reading a pocketbook. When an author did a really good book and you liked it the first time you've read it, you won't hesitate to read the new book done by the same author. Only yesterday is hardly a new anime, but since Studio Ghibli DVDs are hard to come by in my side of the world, any movie of theirs that I can get my grubby hands on is always welcome.
The DVD cover showed a man, woman, and a little girl sitting underneath a tree. An anime about a family? Hardly. It's about Taeko Okajima, telling her story as it unfolds right before her eyes, and inserting flashbacks of her 10-year-old self in between.
The scene opens with a skyscraper in the city. Taeko is a 27-year old single woman working in one of the building's offices, and about to take a vacation leave. Her boss kiddingly asked her if her being broken-hearted was the reason she's taking the sabbatical, but Taeko firmly disagrees. She planned to go to the country and stay with her brother-in-law Mitsuo's family who works in a safflower field. Taeko is a city native. Having had no hometown to go on vacation to, she is happy to learn that her brother-in-law used to live in the province before he married her sister Nanako. Taeko promised to herself that she would adopt her brother-in-law's hometown and his family and love them as if they were her own.
Before she was to board the train to Yamagata, Taeko would have flashbacks---that of her ten year old self. Taeko was in her fifth-grade, and she would envy her classmates who would go to their parents' hometowns during the vacation break while she gets to stay in the boring city. She also had flashbacks of the little things her little self had encountered back then: how she had been a picky eater, how she had learned that one of their school's star baseball players had a crush on her, how their family had their first taste of a fresh pineapple and didn't like it, how the girls in their class where first taught about the female reproductive system, ergo the menstrual period, and how embarrassed they had been when the boys would tease them about it.
The older Taeko by then has reached the Yamagata station and was surprised that instead of her brother-in-law's brother, Kazuo, waiting for her, a man asked her name and made a grab for her bag. After a short awkward moment, the man finally introduced himself as Kazuo's cousin, Toshio. Toshio took her to the her brother-in-law's safflower farm in his cute little white car. On the way, Toshio told Taeko that he used to work in an office but gave it up because he discovered the joys of working as an organic farmer.
Taeko finally reached the saffron farm and immediately proceeded to help Kazuo and the other members of the family to pick safflower petals to be used to create dye. Once again, Taeko's work in the farm, her interactions with her brother-in-law's family, and even her candid conversations with Toshio were interspersed with recollections of her childhood, particularly her fifth-grade self: how she had thrown tantrums when she would only be given hand-me-downs, how she was hit by her father for the first and last time when she stepped out of the house with only her socks on, how she was bad in math, particularly in fractions and how she overheard her mother and her sister Yaeko musing that Taeko is probably not normal with her difficulty in mastering math.
Finally it was time for Taeko to go back to the city, and her brother-in-law's family, particularly the grandmother, urged her to stay, seeing how Taeko loves the countryside. And wouldn't it be nice if she and Toshio get married? It would be a perfect solution for Taeko to stay in the country. Now Taeko is confused and felt like a fraud; she loves her brother-in-law's family and loves spending time in the country, but does that mean she's prepared to spend the rest of her life there? And what about Toshio, what exactly are her feelings for him?
At first I was confused when scenes of the older Taeko would be replaced by a younger Taeko in the next scene, having no idea who the little girl was. There was no indication that Taeko was having a flashback. In my mind, flashbacks in anime have hazy edges surrounding it indicating that it is indeed a flashback. But I wasn't confused for long, when Taeko was talking on the phone with her sister Nanako and how she would tell her sister about the trip to the hot springs---and the next scene showed a little girl with her grandmother in the hot springs.
Only Yesterday is originally a manga by Hotaru Okamoto. It's a collection of short stories, mainly about the younger Taeko and how she had encountered the latest trends of that time, the time being 1966. The director, Isao Takahata, had difficulty condensing the manga into a movie, so he incorporated an older Taeko to act as the storyteller.
Only Yesterday is another realistic anime by Studio Ghibli, but unlike Ocean Waves, it has way too serious undertones. And by serious undertones, I meant nostalgia---the kind that older people appreciate. To anybody else, especially the younger audience, it would probably have been a big yawn. If I was younger, I would also have found the pace of the anime dragging. Then again when I was younger, I was a hopeless romantic (although I still am, but not that much), and would always expect realistic anime to have romantic arcs in it. This anime however has a teeny bit of romance in it, if you call Taeko and Toshio's sharing of childhood experiences romantic. Definitely not for an audience with raging hormones.
Once again the artwork has the signature cleanliness of Studio Ghibli. The scenery tried very hard to copy rural Japan, and is successful in that regard, because in my mind I can almost picture the real thing. The only gripe that I have is that the older Taeko is not pretty, which may lend more authenticity to the anime. After all, Taeko is an oridnary woman, and not all ordinary women are extraordinarily pretty. Taeko's younger self is cute though. As for the music, I absolutely love the ending theme (The Rose) which is actually an English original by Amanda McBroom with the translated Japanese version sung by Miyako Harumi.
Only Yesterday is a nice, nostalgic anime. If you're tired after a very long day---which is mostly the case with me---this is a good anime to watch. Just don't expect fluff from this anime though. It's a relaxing anime to see, if nothing else. Oh, and don't turn off the DVD when the credits start rolling in. It will show you what really happened to Taeko and Toshio up until after the last line of credits appears.