Only Yesterday (Isao Takahata, 1991)

Only Yesterday
Well, this was a novelty. A Ghibli film I didn’t like. Ok, there were parts I liked and parts I hated and, overall, I’m quite ambivalent about it but it’s far and away the weakest one I’ve seen so far, and that’s despite a conceit, and also some scenes, I loved.

The story is set as a schoolteacher, Taeko, in her late twenties travels to her annual summer holiday in the countryside where she works on a farm. As she travels, and then as she works on the farm, memories of her ten-year old self haunt her imagination, manifesting almost as a real presence in her modern life. Some of these are very clear echoes, with thematic links between then and now, but others are more idiosyncratic and cryptic in meaning. The memories of her childhood were the most charming thing about the film, often funny but also insightful, charming and moving. It’s her adult self that’s problematic. As a child, Taeko is feisty, individualistic and bright (though with believable gaps and flaws in her understanding); as an adult, she is a bit ‘thin’, and all too placid. Her friendship, and hesitant romance, with a local farmer is the only drama we see, and that’s all too often side-tracked by some overt preaching about organic farming.

It’s that preachy tone to the film that really grated. There was constant repetition of the mantra of the countryside being better than the city, and of organic being the ‘way forward’ and ‘old ways’ being the answer to all Japan’s problems. Because harking back to a mythical golden age, with simplistic and unworkable solutions is always the answer to the world’s problems! As always with Ghibli films, much of the animation was gorgeous, in this case mostly the landscapes, but the people! There was a repeated attempt to show the unalloyed, simple happiness of the farming community but their smiles were so uniformly and simplistically portrayed as to make them look like gormless automatons.

Most of Ghibli’s films have an environmental consciousness about them, and frequently a message to impart, but no others I’ve seen are so blunt or wrong-headed in delivering it, or willing to screw up the telling of a story as sacrifice to it

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