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Great Films You’ve Never Seen: Only Yesterday (Omoide Poro Poro)

*Even though the film market has expanded globally, there are still plenty of films out there that the average filmgoer does not know about. This column is a way to tell about those hidden gems that may not get enough marketing, or worldwide attention.*

While the name Hayao Miyazaki is well-known and associated with Japanese animation house Studio Ghibli, one of its lesser-known directors to American audiences is Isao Takahata (one of the studio’s co-founders).

Three of Takahata’s films have been released stateside, but it is only his emotionally-gripping animated film Grave of the Fireflies that is often talked about in many film circles (film critic Roger Ebert is known to have spoken of his love for the film). The two other films of his that have seen US DVD releases, are the 1994 film Pom Poko, and his 1999 animated comedy, My Neighbors the Yamadas (based on the comic by Hisaichi Ishii).

Probably the one reason that Fireflies got a release in the United States, is that Walt Disney Pictures (who have been releasing Ghibli films for over a decade) do not have the distribution rights. That film in and of itself is almost the Schindler’s List of anime films (it’s a masterpiece, but not the kind of film you can just watch over and over again), and was released by Central Park Media.

Sandwiched between the release of Fireflies in 1988 (which played as part of a double-feature with My Neighbor Totoro, believe it or not!) and Pom Poko, Takahata adapted and directed the 1991 theatrical release, Only Yesterday.

Based on the manga of the same name, the film concerns a woman named Taeko (Miki Imai), an office worker in Tokyo who plans to take a 10-day vacation. Her sister’s husband owns a farm in Yamagata, and after having had a nice time there previously, Taeko requests to visit it again.

As she takes her trip, her mind starts to drift back to 1966, when she was in the fifth grade, remembering times both good and bad.

Ever since I first heard about the film on the internet site, the only knowledge I had about it were some vague images and a short summary. I went into the film not quite knowing what to expect, and came out pleasantly surprised.

If Miyazaki is known for making his characters and films take flight, Takahata seems to do a pretty good job of keeping his characters grounded, but with plenty of emotion! Probably one reason why this film has not been released, is that it is more of a dramatic comedy, and contains some material that may seem too slow for children, or cause some to wonder why it wasn’t made into a live-action film instead. Some parents may even find a couple parts of Taeko’s past a bit hard to stomach.

Yesterday also walks a fine line when we pass between the past and the present. Artistically, Takahata chooses to render the past in a lighter color palette, with plenty of white around the edges, almost like we’re peering into a distant memory. The present is rendered in ways that make the city of Tokyo seem large and imposing, and the farm setting of Yamagata seem expansive and peaceful. There’s even a very informative scene regarding the harvesting and uses of the safflower plant, which I’m sure not many people know about.

Design-wise, Takahata’s characters fit pretty closely into the mold for most of Ghibli‘s characters, but aside from the wide-eyed child designs that we’ve come to know from Ghibli, the adults rendered in this film seem a bit more ‘real’ than we’re used to. The adults like Taeko have smaller eyes, with less-caricatured features. Even so, I found myself strangely surprised and entranced by one trait that not many Ghibli characters show: cheeks. Taeko’s smile creates lines that one almost never sees in characters, and such traits follow suit with several others in the film.

The film is also rife with some very creative and exaggerated expressions, such as in a past scene, where Taeko and her family partake in freshly-cut pineapple. She attempts to finish her piece and several more, but one can see the expression on her face relays that she is not enjoying it.

This is one of those non-Miyazaki-directed films that belongs right up there with Whisper of the Heart, and The Secret World of Arrietty. It’s captivating like Whisper, yet is heightened by the emotions of an adult looking to the past, and wondering about her future, which I think many of us have done at least a couple times in our lives.

Unlike Miyazaki who has relied on composer Jo Hisaishi as a musical ‘partner,’ Takahata has had a different musical collaborator on each of his films. For Yesterday, he recruited Hoshi Katsu, a name which means little to others, but made me very excited when I realized who he was (he composed numerous tracks for the anime series Urusei Yatsura, one of the first anime/manga I latched onto in the late 90’s)! I’ve grown fond of his simple piano melodies over the years, and also his use of synthesizers. With this film, the melodies he weaves are more subtle, to the point that one almost forgets there is music, but when one hears the themes he has composed, they sound like a dream or a distant memory.

Over the ending credits, the film takes an American song and translates it into Japanese as the ending theme (a process that was used in Whisper of the Heart as well). I won’t say just what the song is, but its interpretation has not been able to leave my head, and I think (along with the visuals) makes the ending one of the best in the Studio Ghibli catalogue. Plus, I’ll never be able to listen to The Carpenters the same way again (ok, that’s the only hint I’ll give, since they have been part of my Spotify and Pandora playlists over the last month).

Like Grave of the Fireflies, the film shows that Studio Ghibli was willing to take a chance on a film that went with much deeper subject matter than normal. Apparently, their efforts were rewarded, when the film became the #1 box-office hit of 1991 in Japan. Looking around the web for further information, I was surprised to find that 20 years after it was released, it was turned into a stage musical as well!

At this time, your best bet to find the film would be to search for an all-regions DVD copy out there. While there has been no word about an American release here, it was released in parts of Europe and Australia back in 2006.

I was lucky enough to catch the film when the touring showcase Castles in the Sky: Miyazaki, Takahata and the Masters of Studio Ghibli came to town. If you get word of this touring showcase, go as soon as possible, as it is one of the few chances many will get to see some of these films on the big screen, along with such rare showings of films like Only Yesterday, and the made-for-television film Ocean Waves (of which I plan to see shortly!).

There’s so much more I’d love to tell about this film, but I’ve said as much as I feel capable of without possibly spoiling the discovery of this film for many of you. Up until now, I’d only seen Takahata’s film Grave of the Fireflies, but now I’m curious as to what he did with other Ghibli titles like Pom Poko, and My Neighbors the Yamadas.

Isao Takahata -Director of Grave of the Fireflies, Only Yesterday, Pom Poko, and My Neighbors the Yamadas.