One day, Hayao Miyazaki will die, and with him so will the renowned animation studio he co-founded, Studio Ghibli. When that day eventually arrives, countless images will play out in the minds of animation fans worldwide. Totoro, up in the sky, his mouth wide open, soaring while carrying a tiny umbrella; Ran, riding a giant snow-white wolf into battle, protecting the only life she’s ever known; little Chihiro trying so diligently to clean a “stink spirit” inside the strangest and most fascinating bathhouse imaginable. I’ll be thinking of those too. I’ll also be thinking of a moment that I feel like I’m watching for the first time every time I see it.
A little girl and boy stand on the edge of a street, alone together. Their cheeks, once pale and white, now resemble the inside of a grapefruit. The boy, nervous yet determined, asks whether she prefers her days sunny or cloudy. Her answer excites the boy. They trade smiles and then he runs off. Overjoyed, he tosses a baseball in the air. The girl runs in the opposite direction; with nothing to throw, she climbs an invisible set of stairs and then launches herself skyward.
The scene is in Isao Takahata’s 1991 masterpiece Only Yesterday, which screened at the French Institute Alliance Française’s Animation First film festival on January 26th, handpicked by this year’s guest of honor, Kirikou and The Sorceress director Michel Ocelot. Ocelot selected the film in part because it is one of his favorite films by Takahata, but the screening also honors the life and career of Takahata, who passed away in April 2018.
Only Yesterday follows Takeo, a single woman in her late 20s, living and working in Tokyo, where she has spent her entire life. Taking a vacation from her office job and Tokyo itself, she heads to northern Japan to assist her brother-in-law in harvesting safflowers. On her journey to the countryside, she thinks back to her childhood, specifically when she was 10 years old. She thinks of her friends, her family, and her struggles with both, along with the most evil of all school subjects: math. Carrying around her fifth-grade self, Takeo ponders about her current situation, and she wonders if she let that down that spunky and ambitious 10-year-old girl.
Takahata shifts between the two timelines, each one with its own unique look. In the present, the animation is sharper, more detailed, more … present. When the story shifts to the past, the animation is simpler, washed out, the edges of the frame seemingly fading away. These segments are made to resemble memories, dissolving moments in time.
When the film released in 1991, it was an outlier, because it told what is still an unconventional story when it comes to feature-length animation. Only Yesterday is about an adult woman making adult decisions, something much bigger and scarier than any energy ball thrown at Goku.
The festival featured the English dub, produced by GKIDS and released in 2016, with Daisy Ridley as Takeo and Dev Patel as Toshino, an organic farmer who develops feelings for Takeo. Their performances are filled with warmth and charm, successfully selling the chemistry the two develop upon their first meeting.
Before GKIDS obtained the US distribution rights to the Ghibli library from Disney, it was difficult to see Only Yesterday at home through legitimate means, let alone on the big screen. Before 2016, this film was considered the “lost” Ghibli film. Today, and hopefully for a long time to come, it will be seen for what it actually is, a masterpiece crafted by a master of the form.