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The Reel Alternative: ‘Only Yesterday’ Marvels with Visuals, Humor and Well-Rounded Characters

Young Taeko from "Only Yesterday"

Photo credit: © 1991 Hotaru Okamoto – Yuko Tone – GNH

Young Taeko from "Only Yesterday"
Written by: Zachary D. ElickMarch 30, 2016

Quality reviews focused on alternative films shown at Fort Wayne’s Cinema Center. A column by Zachary D. Elick.


“Only Yesterday” is a charming movie full of small, quiet moments that pack a punch. Luckily, the force of its blows should make viewers laugh more often than it will tug on their heartstrings.

Despite being successful when it was first released in Japan in 1991, “Only Yesterday” was inexplicably kept from a North American release until this year. Based on the manga “Omoide Poroporo,” the film was adapted for the screen by Academy Award-winning animation director Isao Takahata.

Takahata, along with fellow Academy Award-winning filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki, was one of the co-founders of Studio Ghibli, the prolific Japanese animation and film studio that brought the world such contemporary classics as “Spirited Away” (2001), “Howl’s Moving Castle” (2004) and “The Tale of Princess Kaguya” (2013).

With two masters of Japanese animation at the helm (Miyazaki is credited as “general producer”), it’s no wonder “Only Yesterday” is visually such a beautiful film. Its naturalistic look is subtly accentuated with occasional flashes of color and light. But even when Takahata and his animators strive for realism, the composition and the cinematography are still pleasing to the eye.

The story of “Only Yesterday” centers on a 27-year-old woman named Taeko, who leaves her home city of Tokyo to visit some relatives in the countryside. Throughout her trip,  Taeko starts experiencing vivid memories from her childhood.

The film flashes back and forth from adult Taeko in 1982, voiced by recent break-out star Daisy Ridley, to her 11-year-old self in 1966, voiced by child-actress Alison Fernandez. In a nice contrast, the color scheme of the two different time periods are slightly different, giving the past a bit of an otherworldly quality.

Some of Taeko’s memories of her childhood are good, and some are not-so-good. But they all seem genuine, making “Only Yesterday” the rare coming-of-age movie that does not feel forced.

I complained a few months back in my review of the boring James Dean biopic, “Life,” that there seemed to be a dearth of well-rounded female characters in today’s alternative cinema. Now comes “Only Yesterday,” shattering that unfortunate stereotype with a strong female character that is allowed to be multi-faceted (and is never sexualized, to boot).

Toshio, the proud organic farmer played by Dev Patel, is also an interesting character who is in no way formulaic.

“Only Yesterday” does a great job of showing the bittersweet nature of childhood, and how the experiences one has during that time can stay with you until adulthood. Though, since the tone is never overly somber and the main character is generally so self-assured, the viewer will mostly likely come away from the movie feeling uplifted.

Yet, the pleasure of watching “Only Yesterday” is not all just about the positive vibes, it’s also about appreciating the filmmaker’s solid grasp of the mechanics of storytelling and their use of stirring visuals.