What we have here is an animation miracle so subtle that it doesn’t fully hit you till you take it home and into your dreams. Isao Takahata’s Only Yesterday, from Studio Ghibli — the company founded by Takahata’s partner in virtuosity Hayao Miyazaki — created a box-office sensation in Japan on its release there in 1991. Americas have had to wait 25 years to see it. No sense in complaining. Just sit back and behold.
The lead character, Taeko, is voiced by new Star Wars sensation Daisy Ridley. (And if that heats up the box office, hallelujah.) Only Yesterday represents the kind of artistry that crosses borders of language and culture. But like many foreign imports with reduced funds for promotion, it can fall between the cracks. Don’t let it.
Like much of Takahata’s work, Only Yesterday deals with adult themes, in this case the role of women in society. Taeko, 27, is a Tokyo office worker about to take a trip to the country. On a train, she recalls scenes from her childhood — a strict father, the terror of her first period, the mean girls who dissed her. Takahata contrasts and blends past and present with a poet’s eye for the way form defines content. He enters the mind and memories of one woman and her 10-year-old self with supreme delicacy. And though Taeko does form a relationship with the goofy Toshio (voiced by Dev Patel), the romance is far from the center of the story of its reason for being. It’s just another step in Taeko’s development.
Ridley’s vocal finesse is exemplary. It’s true that Pixar’s Oscar darling Inside Out also concerns a young girl whose head is full of conflicting emotions. It’s a modern classic. Only Yesterday comes from a quieter, less demonstrative place. As he did in his most recent and reportedly final film, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, Takahata has built Only Yesterday to go gently and to last. Mission accomplished.