Movie Review: ONLY YESTERDAY (Japan 1991) ***1/2

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only_yesterdayONLY YESTERDAY (Japan 1991) ***1/2
Directed by Isao Takahata

Starring: Miki Imai, Toshirô Yanagiba, Youko Honna

Review by Gilbert Seah

ONLY YESTERDAY is a 1991 Studio Ghibli film which was generally produced by Master Hayao Miyazaki. Takahata also directed the well-known and loved THE TALE OF PRINCESS KAGUYA and GRAVE OF THE FIREFLIES. Studio Ghibli is known to be in financial trouble, so any reworking of the studio’s animated features is a huge welcome.

Though one wonders of the reason ONLY YESTERDAY is the film chosen for the reworking. It is immediately noticeable that the film is so unlike the favourites of Ghibli Studios the most notable being Miyazaki’s HOWL’S MOVING CASTLE, PONYO, MY NEIGHBOUR TOTORO and SPIRITED AWAY. There is an absence of Japanese folklore and mythical creatures. Magic, is present though in a different form. In ONLY YESTERDAY, the magic is in the imagination of the heroine and what life has to offer.

The premise is a simple one. 27-year old Taeko (Daisy Ridley) is unmarried. She loves the countryside. She visits her relatives there and a flood of memories brings her back to the days of first romance, puberty (done with much humour and taste) and the frustration of math (division of fractions, of all things) and boys. Takeo meets a young farmer, Toshio (Dev Patel). The two connect with feelings. Taeko is taken aback and feels uncomfortable when she is pressured by Toshio’s parents into marriage with their son.

The 1991 Japanese version is available in laserdisc format but the film has been redone in an English version, with the voices of the now famous Daisy Ridely, who had the lead as Rey in STAR WARS; THE FORCE AWAKENS and SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE’s Dev Patel.

I do not favour any dubbed version of a film, and the pleasure of ONLY YESTERDAY comes especially when the soundtrack with songs in Japanese comes on. But there are lots of American influences in the film, such as baseball and the Beatles, though they also form part of the culture that Taeko grew up with.

The best parts of the film are the simple ones – like the family sitting by the dinner table slicing a pineapple for the first time, or Takeo literally taking flight in an imaginary sequence.
But the film is not without certain flaws. For one, both Ridley and Patel could do British or American accents as Ridley is British and Patel could be coached to do American. But the strong American accent of Ridley’s character and British accent of Patel clash in the film. If one wants to argue that people from the countryside speak with a British accent to differentiate, why then only the Patel character an not the others from the countryside? The film’s imaginary happy ending also leaves the audience a bit bewildered.

But it is the animation of the Ghibli Studios, care of Takahata and his team of artists that triumphs. From the detailed shadows of the characters to the landscape of the countryside and the glorious colour and glow of the insects and background, ONLY YESTERDAY astounds and is the best of what animated films can offer. This alone is worth the visit to this breathtaking work of animated art.

ONLY YESTERDAY celebrates Studio Ghibli’s 25th anniversary (and 30 years in its founding). The studio is sadly in hiatus with no new productions after disappointing box-office receipts of their recent efforts.

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