Animation has always held a distinct position within the realm of film, enchanting viewers with its unique advantages. One of its most powerful capabilities is its ability to infuse fantastical elements into otherwise totally realistic settings. Before the advent of CGI, animation was pretty much the only way to create convincing epic fantasy worlds such as those we see in contemporary blockbusters like Avengers or Lord of the Rings. When it comes to the history of western animation, Disney towers above almost everyone else. Virtually every American child in the 20th century has come into contact with the ideals expressed in films like The Lion King. However, there is an equally rich, generally underappreciated tradition of animation in Japanese culture. And although Disney may still hold the global animation crown due to the sheer volume of their accomplishments, there is a strong argument to be made that when it comes to creating convincing, vibrant new worlds, the best studio for the past few decades has actually been legendary director Hayao Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli.
Responsible for such classics as My Neighbor Totoro, Sprited Away and Princess Mononoke, Ghibli films are known for their creativity, spirit and lovable child heroes, as well as their gorgeous animation. However, it must be noted that at the same time as they were reinvigorating the realm of traditional animation, these films were pushing the boundaries of what is considered acceptable or possible in the medium. This experimental side of the studio is especially embodied in the works of co-founder Isao Takahata.
Takahata’s filmography is wide ranging, encompassing everything from family comedies starring raccoons to realistic wartime drama. His 1991 film Only Yesterday is the only Studio Ghibli film to never receive a North American release, but a lucky few were able to see it screened for the first time this past Saturday night at Cornell Cinema. It is a film that displays all the depth and grandeur of a Ghibli film, with one simple twist: it takes place in the real world. At its core is nothing more than a simple drama. We follow the twenty-seven year old Taeko Okajima as she tries to find her place in 1982 Japan. She lives in Tokyo, but takes a ten day vacation to the countryside to work on an organic farm harvesting safflowers. Along the way she is joined by a rather unusual companion: herself. To be more accurate, her memories of herself as a ten year old girl.
For the most part, the film depicts life accurately, although not simply. The animation style is luscious and fills each entire frame with sumptuous details for the eye to feast on. This is especially true of the countryside scenes. There is one particular scene where they are harvesting flowers as the sun rises, which struck me as one of the most beautifully animated, realistic sequences I have ever seen — but there were at least four other sequences like this that made me sit up in my seat and mutter to myself in astonishment. Every Studio Ghibli film is spectacular in its own way, but seeing one on the big screen for the first time was unforgettable. This highly detailed style is slightly contrasted with the memory sequences, which use a lighter, slightly faded color scheme that evokes the fuzzy yet completely vivid nature of our memories.
Memory is the central concept of the film. Taeko, although still relatively young, is experiencing more pressure to settle down, more reminders from the other people in her life that her biological clock is ticking. She is uncertain about how she should proceed with her life, which makes her think of her younger self, who also dealt constantly with being unusual, with not fitting into the acceptable parameters that a young Japanese girl was expected to fit into. The film switches back and forth between the past and present with a fluidity which would not be possible in a live action film. Not to mention the incredible sequences when her memory takes on an enchanted, otherworldly quality that evokes all the substance of childhood without sticking too closely to realism. In one memorable sequence, the boy on whom Taeko has a crush makes a point of running into her on her way home. The encounter is animated in a surreal way that is still realistic, but as she runs home, she rises up into the sky. She floats home as if in a dream, flying through her window and gently landing in her bed. We cut to the outside, where a massive heart expands and pops, jumping us forward to the older Taeko, who is just as giddy and lovestruck in her recollection of the past as she was in the actual past.
This interweaving of present and past is astonishingly well done, and it is the perfect example of something easily animated that would be incredibly difficult to film otherwise. The film made me aware of how big a role memory plays in our lives and how, if we ignore those memories, we are ignoring a key part of what makes us human. In its literal translation, the film’s title means Memory Drips Down, which is the perfect description of the feat which the film accomplishes, as well as the way our memory constantly infiltrates our lives. It is this accomplishment which ultimately makes the film utterly unforgettable.