Only Yesterday has, until recently, been the only Studio Ghibli film not to see some sort of Stateside release. When Studio Ghibli finally hit the bigtime in the West in 2001, their instant classic Spirited Away winning that year’s Best Animated Feature Oscar, Disney (who dubbed and distributed the film) brokered a deal with the legendary Japanese animation studio to release all of their films, past and future, in the West, uncut and with quality English dubs studded with celebrities. The only two left off the list were Grave of the Fireflies, a drama about two children trying to survive in the final days of WWII that had been readily available on video for some time (and is also really, really depressing) and Only Yesterday. No real specific reason could be discerned for Only Yesterday’s absence, though many fans speculated that it was because it was a more deliberately paced drama made primarily for adults, and maybe also because there was a prominent subplot about grade school girls learning about getting their periods and who got theirs’ first and… y’know, girls’ bodies. Gross, right?
It’s interesting that both of those films are directed by Isao Takahata. Though Studio Ghibli is often seen as the house of Hayao Miyazaki, its’ most prolific and influential director, frequently cited as ‘The Walt Disney of Japan,’ Takahata is a co-founder of the studio and has directed some of its most fascinating features. Whereas Miyazaki’s features are typically preoccupied with mythology and folklore and the mundane giving way to the fantastical, Takahata’s oeuvre is more broadly concerned with character drama. Even his most recent (and ostensibly final) film, The Tale of Princess Kaguya, was a Japanese fable presented as a slow-burning character study about patriarchy, feminism, and individuality. (It’s really good, you should go and see it!)
In any case, Only Yesterday is finally here, courtesy of the arthouse animation distributor, GKids (who have also handled the last couple of Ghibli films.) I tend to prefer to see anime in Japanese with subtitles, but there are times I make exceptions, and Ghibli tends to be one of these. Since Disney handled so many of the previous dubs, they put an emphasis on quality voicework. Spirited Away still stands as one of the best English dubs ever produced, but the sheer number of celebrities roped in to pull duty on the entire range of Ghibli’s projects is staggering, from Christian Bale to Liam Neeson to Tina Fey, to name just a sliver of the talent involved. I had the pleasure of seeing Only Yesterday in Japanese in high school, but when I heard it was releasing in theaters with a dub featuring the likes of Star Wars’ Daisy Ridley and Slumdog Millionaire’s Dev Patel, I knew I had to get on that!
It’s 1982, and Taeko Okajima lives in Tokyo. She works an office job, takes long summer vacations working as a farmhand in the countryside, and, much to the consternation of her family, is unmarried at the age of 27 (she’s not even dating!) On the night train to Yamagata, Taeko begins flashing back to her year as a fifth grader, the year that seemed to signal her transition out of childhood, and recalling all traumas, explicit and implicit, that drove her more and more inside of herself. While harvesting at the farm, she meets and begins a gentle, gentle courtship with Toshio, a young man passionate about obscure music and this newfangled agricultural approach called ‘organic farming.’ Might love bloom?
The movie runs two hours, and it’s pretty evenly split between the adult Taeko and her self-described ‘fifth-grade self’ (voiced by Alison Fernandez.) And to be honest, I found the adult part of the story pretty boring, at least this time around. That may in part be due to Ridley and Patel’s performances. Ridley adopts an American accent here, but it’s as flat and as monotone as her performance in Star Wars was (ooh, BURN!!). Taeko’s dialogue suggests a character who is humorous and very at ease with herself, and though there’s no line reading that’s objectively terrible here, her performance doesn’t bring a lot of color either. Similarly, Patel gives Toshio his native British accent, which doesn’t really make a lot of sense, but also fails to really give much in the way of vitality or enthusiasm to the role, the characteristics that presumably draw these two together.
Then again, this might just be an issue of pacing. Try as I might, it’s difficult to find a 10-minute conversation about organic farming compelling, even when trying to draw parallels between it and Japan’s corrupt infrastructure… actually, no, that’s just boring.
Where Only Yesterday excels – indeed where most of my memories of it come from – is from the flashbacks to Taeko’s childhood, and all the pain and awkwardness that comes with that time of life. Whereas Taeko’s adult self seems calm and collected (on the surface at least), her childhood self is intelligent, creative, selfish, sensitive, and deeply insecure. Matters are not helped by a family and a school system that keep telling her, in one way or another, that she is not playing her assigned role, that she is simply not ‘good enough.’
“A normal kid wouldn’t get a score this low,” her older sister shrieks to their mother when asked to help her with her math homework. “Well, she’s not a normal kid, is she,” she shouts back, only to realize her youngest daughter has come down the stairs.
It’s moments like these – painfully real – that fill out the psychological profile of the woman you see in the future. There’s the teasing at school, the cold refusal of personal goals, and in one shocking moment, a childish act of defiance that suddenly escalates to a moment of physical abuse.
Taeko’s childhood is also where the film indulges its few surrealistic touches. Upon the joy of reciprocating a childhood crush for the first time, Taeko floats all the way home, landing softly on her pillow. When approached by a local college after giving an exceptional performance in a school play, she imagines her visage on the covers numerous fashion and lifestyle magazines.
To me, the childhood segment of Taeko’s life is the more emotional, more lively, more authentic storyline of the film, but that me be because I relate to it just a little too much. (Also, the voice acting is noticeably better here.)
The image that stuck out most to me, this time round, takes place near the end of the film. After her dreams of semi-professional thespianism are crushed, Taeko protests the unfairness of it all to her mother in an outdoor market. Her mother tells her, with quiet frustration, to just give up, please. What follows is a shot of mother and daughter – two generations of women – walking silently in line. Until, in one last dash of surrealism, Taeko walks defiantly to the beat of her own vibrant, childish, distinctly unique drum. It’s not as triumphant in action as I make it sound, but the willpower, the drive – what is inside of this person that makes her special – is there. There is a thread of feminism that runs through Takahata’s – for that matter, all of Studio Ghibli’s – work, and it is in this scene that it is most expressive.
(By the way, that menstruation subplot, if you’re still stuck on that: totally tasteful. I can’t speak to the experience of actually having one, but I imagine it’s as authentic to the circumstances it depicts as it could be.)
THE BOY AND THE BEAST
Whereas Takahata is a peer of Miyazaki’s, Mamoru Hosoda is frequently hailed in some circles as the new Miyazaki. Bursting onto the anime scene about a decade ago with his directorial debut, The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, Hosoda has developed a brand of his own of stories that marry high-concept sci-fi and fantasy with a heaping helping of emotional angst (typically of the high school variety), and some pretty good slapstick sprinkled throughout. In simpler terms, crowd-pleasers. So far, he’s four-for-four, with his debut, follow-up Summer Wars, the adorable Wolf Children, and now, his latest: The Boy and the Beast.
Starting in a modern day Tokyo, nine-year-old and newly-minted orphan Ren (Aoi Miyazaki) runs away from his uncaring guardians to the streets of Shibuya, whereupon he meets a cute, miniscule ball of fluff he names ‘Chiko.’ He also is harassed by a couple of ominous figures in trench coats, neither of which seem to be completely human and who mention something about an ‘apprentice.’ Following these two whilst also evading the cops, Ren finds himself in the realm of Jutengai, home to a species of humanoid creatures who all have the features of animals (monkeys, wolves, pigs, oh my!) It turns out that the Lord of the realm (Masahiko Tsugawa), a rabbit with a penchant for riddling his subjects like a cross between Yoda and the Cheshire Cat, has decided to retire and become a god. That said, he has yet to decide exactly what kind of god he’d like to be, let alone pick a successor.
The two frontrunners for succession are Iozen (Kazuhiro Yamaji), a golden-maned boar who’s a bit of a goody-two-shoes, and Kumatetsu (Koji Yakusho), a bear who is arguably more powerful than Iozen but who is loud, selfish, lazy, and an out-and-out louse. Still, he resolve to become the new lord is like steel, and the boy has a juvenile anger that’s more similar to the beast’s than not. Kumatetsu takes Ren as his pupil, re-christening him ‘Kyuta,’ and a pseudo-paternal relationship begins.
Within its brisk two hours, The Boy and the Beast manages to stuff in a globe-trotting journey through the spirit realm, a massive jump forward in time, reconnections with long-lost family members, a none-too-subtle visual metaphor for emptiness, an even less subtle allegory to Moby-Dick, strained father-son relationships, that typically Japanese way of coyly suggesting a romance that’s never made explicit, a cute animal sidekick, kung-fu, sword fights, death, angst, identity crises, math exams, and yes, explosions. It throws so much content at the screen that it feels as though some parts of the story don’t fully get the treatment they deserve, but the one thing you can’t accuse this film of being is boring.
Personally, nothing has quite matched the highs of The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, but I’m a sucker for slice-of-life dramdeys and Girl is basically a high school love triangle with ethical questions about time travel pasted on top. Still, with a film as handsomely made as The Boy and the Beast, it’s hard to pick on it. Awash in bright colors, the film features some of the best character animation this side of Pixar; these characters truly feel as if they’re acting. Of course, that’s probably helped in no small part to the excellent voice-work (yes, even in Japanese), led by Yakusho’s exceptionally spirited performance as Kumatetsu.
The film still falls into the trap that many anime films tend to near the end where characters spend a lot of time making bold proclamations to the bad guy about truth and justice and love and friendship when those circumstances, and the stakes attached to them, are already implicit in the story, and really, shouldn’t these guys just be fighting already? But in a film where the emotions run as high as they do in this film, it’s hard not to get verklempt at least once, especially if you have a weakness for parent-child relationships (as I do.)
Frankly, when it comes to what blockbuster cinema should aspire to be, Hollywood could stand to take a few pages from Hosoda’s handbook.