Nether Regions 06.01.10: Only Yesterday
Posted by Chad Webb on 06.01.2010
From Isao Takahata, the great director of "Grave of the Fireflies", comes a review of his 1991 film that has not been released in the US. If you're an anime fan, you should click...
Nether Regions started as a segment of the Big Screen Bulletin that meant to showcase films that have been discontinued on DVD, are out of print in the United States, are only available in certain regions outside the United States, or are generally hard to find. Now it is a column all its own! You might ask "Why should I care about a film I have no access to?" My goal is to keep these films relevant because some of them genuinely deserve to be recognized. Every time I review a new film I will have a list of those I covered below so you can see if they have been announced for DVD release, or are still out of print.
Featuring the Voices of: Miki Imai, Toshiro Yanagiba, and Yuoko Honna Directed By: Isao Takahata Written By: Isao Takahata Running Time: 118 minutes Release Date: July 20, 1991 (Japan) Missing Since: 1991 Existing Formats: Nothing in Region 1 - Only Region 2 DVD Netflix Status: Not Available Availability: Extremely Rare - Hard to Buy and Watch
Friends and colleagues of Isao Takahata describe him as being "descended from a giant sloth" due to the slowness with which he works on his projects. For longtime partner Hayao Miyazaki, this can be frustrating because he uses the opposite approach of full-steam ahead. We all go about our jobs differently, and as long as it gets done, I suppose one way is no better or worse than the next unless you miss deadlines. Actually, that has happened to Takahata in the past, but his patience and steady pacing is reflected in many of his films. There is a calm beauty to them as they float by leisurely. This is no more evident than in his marvelous, rarely seen, 1991 achievement Only Yesterday.
Both Taekos make an appearance together on the train.
Calling it slow might not be the whole truth, but Only Yesterday definitely progresses at unhurried pace, mainly because that is what the story requires to genuinely leave the proper impact. This is why it was perfect for Isao Takahata to tackle, as Executive Producer Miyazaki explained his book Starting Point: 1979 - 1996. The opening credits begin with an incredibly moving theme by Katsu Hoshi (his only Ghibli contribution), the type of music which instantly conveys that the film about to unfold is a special one. As a matter of fact, the music for Only Yesterday plays an important role for many crucial moments, and the concluding tune (a regular occurrence for Studio Ghibli films), is very effective.
The story follows Taeko, as an unmarried 27-year old in 1982 (voice of Miki Imai), employed in an office building in Tokyo, and as an 11-year old girl (voice of Yuoko Honna) in 5th grade in 1966. As an adult, Taeko is not completely satisfied with her life. She decides to spend her vacation time in the Yamagata country side with her sisters-in-law where she helps with the benibana (safflower) harvest. Her trip is filled with memories of her youth, particularly her 5th grade self, which she says, shows up unexpectedly. Many Japanese love vacationing in the country, and Taeko arrives on the farm with heartfelt enthusiasm. As the days go by, Taeko reminisces more and more about significant and substantial times as a child.
The plot is relatively simply to explain, but profound and poignant in execution. This might not be an easy film to grasp for some. It contains many sequences related to Japanese culture that not everyone will immediately understand, but the core motifs and messages are universal. For instance, Taeko remembers when she was young and her parents, sisters Nanako (voice of Yori Yamashita) and Yaeko (voice of Yuki Minowa), and grandmother eagerly anticipated getting a real pineapple. Imported fruit was rare and expensive in Japan during the 1960's, and most people ate them canned. Her family must wait to eat it so that someone can learn to cut it correctly, but they eventually all sit down to take a bite. The result is disappointment, but Taeko does not exactly hate it like the rest of her family does. She capitulates to the opinion of everyone else by agreeing that the banana is the "king of fruits." Her failure to stand firm with her own feelings emerges repeatedly throughout the picture.
Choosing merely a few scenes to praise in a film saturated from start to finish with endless examples is frustrating. However, one stands out above the rest. While in school, Taeko thinks back to when a group of girls informed her that a boy in another class likes her. Her initial expression is one of utter astonishment. She is 11, and has not given a second thought to liking boys, but the possibility that this one is fond of her causes her to be consumed by it. His name is Hirota (voice of Yuuki Masuda), and he is an excellent baseball player for his age. She gazes out of the school window as he pitches to his friend. She attends the game when his classroom faces hers, but her fellow students order her not to cheer for the opposing team. Afterwards she runs off, scared of confronting Hirota after incessant teasing from other classmates. They come across each other in the street with no one else around. Hirota stumbles and mumbles with his words and finally asks her if she prefers cloudy days or sunny days. They agree on cloudy days, and gleefully part ways with one common interest. Taeko runs home, but the sequence displays her walking on air. It is her first crush, and it really touched me because of how honestly the segment was presented. We've all been in that position before. Exchanging brief conversation with someone you have eyes for and proclaiming it to be love.
A DVD cover available in Asia.
The reason Only Yesterday has not been released on DVD in the United States, and never will be in the near future, is because it includes references to menstruation. Disney has a distribution deal with Studio Ghibli, but decided it could not release the film because of this. And Studio Ghibli included a clause in their contract which stated the scene could not be altered. Removing this scene would have been detrimental to the film, also foolish. This is I'm sure a fundamental part of growing up for females, and the point of its insertion is that the '82 Taeko is changing just as she was changing in 1966. She must learn to accept these changes, not reject them, and it is an issue she faces at both periods in her life. (no pun intended)
Most films show the transition from present-day to flashbacks with wavy images, obvious framing, or fading signals. Only Yesterday does not succumb to this trend. There are indications of the differing periods, but not ones the viewer may be used to. The 1982 world is vividly detailed with bold colors and unravels with a docudrama effect. The 1966 memories have thinly guised watercolor backgrounds, and appear to be lacking the same level of distinction. It makes sense because some facets of your past will be clearer than others and will come to you instantly. What springs to mind could be somewhat hazy, but that's commonly how it happens as we grow older. Taeko's sporadic narration is the most palpable sign. Getting accustomed to this structure is part of the pleasure of watching.
The odd ways that Taeko's childhood memories come to her struck me as wonderfully true to life. Sometimes it is hard to describe why you think of a specific person or experience at a certain time. Observing Taeko farming, and peering at her quirks as a 5th grader affords an intricate and comprehensive look at her. Only Yesterday is not merely about nostalgia, but instead about how one's childhood acquires a weight and magnitude that becomes increasingly meaningful as a grown adult. Takahata adapted this from a manga by Hotaru Okamoto and Yuko Tone, which focused on the 5th grade story thread. Takahata supplied the adult material, and without it, this brilliant film would not have been nearly as evocative.
Taeko's youth is, in many respects, quite normal, but in Japan, during the 1960's, she seemed rather odd at times. She was terrible at mathematics, threw temper tantrums about trivial things, and disliked certain lunch foods. This Taeko is voiced with fabulous zest and innocence by Yuoko Honna. As a 27-year old waiting for the next phase in her life, she leaps headfirst into the organic farming with barely a mention of her Tokyo life. It does not occur to her because she does not want it to. She was mollifying society to avoid being pinpointed or criticized. Voiced with congeniality by Miki Imai, she is searching for relevance in her life, and her stint with the friendly country folk helps. She has passion for this way of living and is keen to assimilate.
Taeko shines as an actress in this unforgettable moment.
Unlike Hayao Miyazaki, Isao Takahata strives for a more naturalistic manner in his films. His only fantasy film, The Adventures of Hols: Prince of the Sun, was made with Miyazaki, their first project together. Since then, Takahata aimed to craft his animated pictures with influences from neo-realism in the vein of Jean Renoir or Yasujiro Ozu (or in this case Bergman's Wild Strawberries). He and Miyazaki took different paths from a creative standpoint, but under the Ghibli banner, they made magic over and over. Those who adore My Neighbor Totoro or Spirited Away might not connect as deeply or effortlessly to Takahata's efforts, but I have found that they stay with me longer. I recommend any or all of Takahata's work, especially Grave of the Fireflies, My Neighbors the Yamadas, and Gauche the Cellist.
Only Yestderay's Japanese title is Omohide Poro Poro, and it translates at "Memories of Falling Teardrops". I actually like both titles, but one is obviously more poetic and less accessible than the other. It was intended primarily for adult females, but became a huge box office success in Japan. I could go on and on about this funny and stirring film, and how I stared with bewilderment at its cunning mastery again and again, but I cannot divulge too much. This is animation at its finest. The emotions of the characters, the articulate nature of the houses, and the gorgeousness of the swaying grass and orange sunsets are all reasons to seek this out. No Takahata fan will feel fulfilled until they do.
--I've been trying the newest Dorito's flavors, which are "Blazin Jalapeno" and "Fiery Buffalo." Both are hotter than most chips, which I like. I find there is a new Dorito flavor each week. Now I move on to "Mr. Dragon's Fire Chips."
--I've been listening to a box set called "Rockin Bones", which is comprised of 50's punk and rockabilly. I now dress, walk, and talk like the Fonz from Happy Days, and since I don't own a switchblade, I carry a switchblade comb like the kid in Prehysteria! 2.
--I recently watched Down in the Valley, starring Edward Norton, and enjoyed it very much. It's a good little film that has eluded me for years. Evan Rachel Wood, David Morse, and Rory Culkin are solid in it too. I also caught Norman Jewison's Jesus Christ Superstar finally, and it was…interesting.
--In honor of Dennis Hopper passing away, I will watch Waterworld non-stop until I pass out. Hopefully this will not result in me wearing an eye-patch or drinking my own urine.
--After watching Man v. Food incessantly, I traveled back home in hopes of trying a Philly cheesesteak challenge. I then discovered I had to eat 9 full ones in under an hour. No thank you. I ordered the little Philly special and moved on.
--Check back next week when I'll try to tackle another Studio Ghibli film that has not been released in the US!