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Only Yesterday (Omohide Poro Poro)
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by Jay Seaver

"Nostalgia and vacation."
4 stars

Though Studio Ghibli is best known for the fantasies of Hayao Miyazaki, the more grounded creations of Isao Takahata are, in may ways, equally striking. Movies like "Only Yesterday" are a unique variation on the "nostalgia film" genre, and few do the combination of animation and realism better than Takahata.

In 1983, Taeko (voice of Miki Imai) is twenty-seven years old, has lived in Tokyo all her life, and recently turned down a marriage proposal. This seems bizarre to both her co-workers and her mother, as does her decision to spend her vacation working on her sister's in-laws' farm. But Taeko's always been a bit of an odd girl, as we can tell from her memories of 1966, when she (voice of Youko Honna) was ten years old, was good at writing but not so good at math, and envied her her classmates who got to go away for the summer.

Though made years later and released in its native Japan in 1991 (in America, it's been held up in limbo as part of Ghibli's Disney distribution deal), the 1983 segments still tend to seem like "the present", despite how Taeko uses the past tense in her narration. This is mostly because Takahata shifts his technique a bit between periods: 1983 fills the screen, with both the city where Taeko starts and the country rendered in such detailed clarity as to almost appear three-dimensional; 1966, meanwhile, has only slightly more stylized character designs, but has much less fully-realized envrionments. Colors are faded, and the backgrounds often don't reach the edge of the screen, leaving the action surrounded by white space. Taeko recalls her childhood better than most, but those moments aren't as strong in her mind as this vacation.

That's also reflected in how, while Taeko's memories of 1983 are sharp and focused, those of 1966 reflect what may seem like random events. And while some are random or too drawn-out, when the bulk of them are taken together, the various anecdotes become a portrait of a girl growing up, sometimes learning things that every woman must know, other times clashing with her formerly-pliant father, or demonstrating by her difficulty with the concept of dividing by fractions that she may be more suited for real, tactile things by her nature. There's perhaps also a sort of commentary on the expectations placed on kids in general and girls in particular based on how Taeko's family seems to focus on what she does poorly rather than pursue that which she does well, both at ten and the implied hints that a woman who is already twenty-seven can't be too picky where men are concerned.

There is a nice little romance going on, though, with local organic farmer Toshio, that's articulated in a wonderfully sweet way. Takahata doesn't push the characters at each other, but from our first meeting with Toshio, where he sheepishly confesses that he was one of the guys who came to the cookout that Taeko attended last year to get a glimpse of the city girl and Taeko misses the significance of his being the one to pick her up at the train station, it's clear what's going on. Toshio is, all things put together, probably one of the best-acted animated characters to be created, both between Toshiro Yanagiba's voice and how Takahata and company capture body language and facial expression without making the character feel rotoscoped or overly photographic. It's something Takahata actually does amazingly well throughout the movie - while there are a couple of the flights of fancy that animation facilitates much better than live action, much of Takahata's technique here involves finding a way to embellish realism in a way to draw the emotions he's looking for out, and he does it so well that it often won't consciously register that subtle differences in how he draws a line can bring out the adult Taeko's youthful spirit or emphasize her fear of getting older.

This sort of nostalgic picture is popular in Japan, and while it can be somewhat hollow, Takahata is wise enough to recognize and point out the dangers of not recognizing memory and vacation as the skewed perspectives that they are. And while the closing sequences may suggest that Takahata is trying to have his cake and eat it too, he has at least saved up for any ending sentiment by showing relative restraint beforehand.

That ending also includes an odd but sort of endearing musical choice - maybe not the perfect fit for the finale, but then again, Takahata never makes any pretense of perfection. "Only Yesterday" may be nostalgic and romantic, but it's well-done enough not to be overpowered by those emotions.

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originally posted: 02/05/12 16:47:17
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User Comments

2/10/12 RueBee I love Hayao Miyazaki and his style of fantasy. I cant wait to own this one. 5 stars
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  N/A (PG)
  DVD: 04-Sep-2006

  N/A (PG)

Directed by
  Isao Takahata

Written by
  Isao Takahata

  Miki Imai
  Toshirô Yanagiba
  Youko Honna
  Yuki Minowa

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