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Courtesy of Studio Ghibli

March 15, 2016

JONES | Isao Takahata’s Only Yesterday and Animation for Adults

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To many, animated movies seem like a medium for children: pretty, colorful and reassuring, with straight edges and corners, gaudy colors that fit just inside the lines, and a lack of  the moral ambiguity that cannot help but enter a film when the characters are played by actual humans.

The work of Studio Ghibli, the Japanese animation studio best known for Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, has proved again and again that animated films can be complex, provocative and even disturbing, and remain enthralling for children. However, the intrigue of Studio Ghibli’s films hardly expires at a young age. I’ve only recently come to them (I haven’t even seen the Academy Award-winning Spirited Away yet), but I have been captivated by the few I’ve seen so far.

The 1991 Studio Ghibli film Only Yesterday, directed by Isao Takahata, has only just been given a United States release with an English dub, 24 years later. It had been the only Ghibli film lacking a U.S. release. I saw it at the Cornell Cinema, without the English dub, just the original Japanese voice cast and English subtitles.

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Courtesy of Studio Ghibli

It’s interesting how different an experience it is to watch a foreign animated film this way, rather than with a cast of English voice actors. With an English dub, a film feels like it is stretching to appear like a unified project, but cracks appear when the English voice actors’ words don’t line up with the mouth movements of the characters. This keeps the audience mindful of the language and the cultural gap even though the English dub is made to close this gap in the first place.

With its original voice cast, however, Only Yesterday didn’t feel like it was trying to mask anything. The reliance on text to understand the plot also creates a new kind of film experience: the audience first reads the text, then applies its understanding to the visual image to see how the words are being reflected by the characters’ expressions or actions. In addition, while hearing the original voice cast in an unknown language might not do much to help you learn that language, it does teach something about how information is conveyed and emotions are expressed.

Only Yesterday tells the story of Taeko, a 27-year-old woman living in Tokyo. During a trip to the countryside, she remembers the year 1966 from her childhood, and those memories make up most of this slow, meditative film. Only Yesterday deftly balances beautiful, transcendent visuals with moments of agonizing adolescent discomfort, which are made all the more poignant and believable by the silence into which the film often settles.

The animation style is distinctive: rather than the flat faces of most anime characters, the adult characters of Only Yesterday have more detailed, expressive faces. The film’s colors are also more muted and fluid than the typically bright, gaudy style of most anime. Both of these lend to the precise realization of the nuanced characters. The fluidity of the animation also contributes to the film’s dreamlike atmosphere, as it shifts back and forth from memories to Taeko’s trip to the country.

The best moments of the film are understated but bursting with significance. One scene, in which Taeko’s family cuts and eats a pineapple for the first time, says volumes about both foreign allure and cultural boundaries through only a few visuals and lines of dialogue. In another scene, Taeko’s father resorts to slapping her when he cannot understand why she sits in silence and refuses to accompany the family on an outing; the inexpressible anguish that the rift in understanding between them causes each is stunningly realized. In perhaps the film’s most quietly eloquent moment, the child Taeko and her classmates run through the corridors of a train, unnoticed by the 27-year-old Taeko.

Only Yesterday is probably one of the least child-oriented of Studio Ghibli’s films — part of the plot revolves around girls getting their first period, and the scene of Taeko’s father hitting her is unsettling — which may have something to do with why it took so long for it to receive a U.S. release. However, it may be the one that children on the verge of adolescence would relate to the most for these same reasons: it precisely captures that age’s anxiety, self-consciousness and halting development of perspective.

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Courtesy of Studio Ghibli

Only Yesterday shows the breadth of animation, and what it can do that live-action films can’t. Touches of magic realism in live-action films often seem to require an interpretation, usually with the conclusion that a character was imagining the magic: think of Riggan’s superpowers in Birdman, or the monsters in Beasts of the Southern Wild. In animation, on the other hand, the boundaries between reality and imagination are less strict. Perhaps it’s because animation helps us to see like a child again, when dreams can seem as vivid and true as the real world.

Jack Jones is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at jackjones@cornellsun.com. Despite all the Amputations runs alternate Wednesdays this term.

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