Takahata Isao’s Only Yesterday (1991) (Omoide poroporo) had its US nationwide theatrical release on Feb. 26, 2016. It’s one of a handful of Ghibli films from the 1980s and 90s that I hadn’t seen on VHS/DVD as a teen.
Set in 1982, the film follows Taeko, a 27-year-old office worker who loves the countryside but grew up in and still lives in Tokyo. She uses her vacation time to travel to rural Yamagata prefecture to visit her older sister’s in-laws and help out with the safflower harvest on their farm. On her trip, she reflects on the events that happened in her family and at school when she was ten, in 1966: her first inclination to visit the country, tension with her older sisters and parents, the onset of puberty, her first mutual crush, math trouble, and how those experiences shaped who she is.
Containers major spoilers. Please note that I saw the English subtitled version of the film with the original Japanese audio.
Part of me is glad I saw it first my early 30s, because being close to the age of the protagonist, I understood her point of view much more than I would have at 16, particularly in the sense that I’ve also spent a lot of time reflecting on the past in the last few years and trying to figure out my relationships to my friends and family. But in chatting with my partner about awkward teen times and internalizing problematic romantic narratives, I wish, in a way, that I had seen this as a teen.
The majority of American movies with a romantic plot romance were built on misunderstanding model: hero and heroine meet; they either 1. immediately dislike each other, often due to a misunderstanding, and then get to know each other (and maybe one makes the other grow as a person) and then fall in love; or 2. they like each other but there’s a huge misunderstanding or false identity plot line and then fall in love. But in these stories, there’s arguing or fighting, and there’s always some (extremely cisheteronormative) article about fighting “making a couple stronger.” (Donotlink.com is down; sorry readers!) So I grew up watching 80s and 90s rom coms and being indoctrinated into this idea that “(Grumpy and Rude and Selfish) Men Who Argue with Women And Then Maybe Maybe (Pretend to) Grow a Conscience or a Soul or Something I Guess And Then We’ll Argue Like an ‘Old Married Couple'” was just what romance looked like and what it was going to look like for me. And it did. And it sucked.
In my 30s, I’ve come to love the idea of friends falling in love–people who care about each other because they genuinely like each other, not because of social dictates to marry someone who claims to superficially “love” you. Ghibli had been there all along with that message.
Upon arriving in Yamagata, Taeko meets Toshio, the second cousin of her brother-in-law and an organic farmer. They become friends, and Taeko tells Toshio her stories about being 10. She doesn’t really realize she likes Toshio until her sister’s grandma-in-law brazenly suggests she marry him and stay with their family. There’s this whole uncomfortable conversation with the grandmother and her sister’s in-law debating if she could hack it as a farmers wife and saying she could still work. However, the tension and misunderstanding are averted because Toshio and Taeko don’t have a misunderstanding and he isn’t hiding plans to propose to her or ask her out; rather, it’s the other family members being awkward.
I remember when I wrote about the love story in Porco Rosso (Kurenai no Buta) in high school, my teacher was surprised that such a specifically “grown up” love story appealed to me, although I didn’t really understand its significance to my life at the time.* Many of the Ghibli films feature a friendship that could develop into romance, but the romance isn’t the primary point of the story; self growth is. This isn’t a story about a romance or a story about a city person moving to the country and grappling with the in-laws, this is Taeko figuring out what she wants from life and having the courage to reconsider several paths that could make her happy.
I appreciated that Taeko enjoying working her job in Tokyo but also that she has a passion for farming and farm politics, not just for Toshio. In a culture in which omiai (matchmaking) weren’t uncommon (and still happen), having Taeko turn down an offer prior to her trip and then going and meeting someone who shares her interests where she sees the possibility of love, is a good message.** Like most Ghibli movies (and Japanese films in general), the characters don’t kiss at the end, but they talk. As a film about self discovery with an element of romance, it’s refreshing to see Taeko realize her feelings for Toshio as secondary to sorting out her feelings about her adolescence and what she wants in her future.
The film also brings up some still relevant issues: farm reforms and the difficulty/importance of organic small scale farming, and the outsider status of service work. This isn’t a service trip or WWOOFing; rather, Taeko is just helping with the harvest as a personal interest through personal connections. Yet she recognizes that farm work is like play to her but is a reality and livelihood to the family with whom she stays. That recognition of her privilege in considering a new occupation, though, is important, as is Toshio’s (who is a farmer’s child) decision to return to farming after an office job and follow his passion as an organic farmer. For example, Taeko talks about how harvesting safflower (紅花) is fun for her, but that the farmers who picked it to make rouge couldn’t even afford to buy the finished product. The inclusion of Taeko’s privilege and place in farming was just as relevant today as it was in 1991, and her self-awareness is refreshing.Regarding the 1966 flashbacks, though Taeko never says it directly, there’s a lot of visual and verbal tension with her father, who is most frequently shown in Japanese dress (as are mom and her own grandmother), hiding behind a newspaper requesting her mother bring him his meal. Taeko seeks his approval but also is at the age when she’s coming to realize that the world is moving forward and he is becoming a patriarch of a bygone age. Also, as the youngest sister to two teenagers, it’s not just that her nostalgia for the 60s is different, but that she’s generationally removed from her siblings and the rest of her family and feels alone.
One of the flashbacks I liked best was the scene in which her father brings her a pineapple from a business trip in 1966, but, since they’ve only ever had it canned, no one knows how to cut it up to eat it. When her mom asks someone how to cut it up and they finally do eat it, it’s a bit underripe–crunchy and not sweet enough. Taeko suffers through a piece and a half before giving up. The scene struck me not just for its bittersweet (hur) nature, but for the animation–how Taeko’s glee, impatience, and disappointment are conveyed through her voice and facial animation, how her sisters comment that obviously the banana is the best fruit. It’s a beautifully animated, poignant film–don’t miss it in theaters.
*In the film, Marco and Gina are two friends in their 40s who have been in love with each other for years, but the timing hasn’t worked out. Gina has been widowed three times by pilots, and she and Marco’s mutually unrequited feelings for each other comprise one layer of the story in the film.
** For more on contemporary matchmaking in Japan, see E. Alpert’s doctoral work.