Japan's fabled animation house, Studio Ghibli, officially closed shop in 2014 following the retirement of its master and mainstay, Hayao Miyazaki, but the years since have seen a welcome reappraisal of the work of Ghibli cofounder and Miyazaki colleague Isao Takahata.
"The Tale of Princess Kaguya" (2013), a delicately powerful medieval fable, was the second-to-last release from the studio, and now Takahata's 1991 classic, "Only Yesterday," is getting a belated US theatrical release from the pioneering animation distributor GKIDS. The film appears in both subtitled and dubbed versions (check listings!) at the Kendall this week and hopefully beyond. If you care anything about the art and soul of animation, attendance is required.
Freely adapted from a best-selling manga, "Only Yesterday" was considered a stretch for an anime feature: a gentle adult drama about the inner emotions, memories, and life choices of a young woman named Taeko, voiced by Miki Imai in the original version. To everyone's surprise, the film became Japan's box-office champ in 1991 and it remains beloved there and abroad. For good reason. Takahata and his animators balance aspects of nostalgia and the present day, urban modernity and rural timelessness, love and regret with a visual and aural sensitivity that draws a viewer in from the first frames.
Set in 1982 with regular flashbacks to Taeko's sometimes painful emotional experiences as a fifth grader in 1966, "Only Yesterday" explicitly asks where a young person belongs in modern Japan and how much he or she might owe to an older society that is disappearing at a clip. When the film opens, Taeko is an office drone looking forward to a 10-day holiday in the country, where she'll work in the fields with her sister's in-laws, a farming family. The film contrasts the rigid linearity of Tokyo with the rounded, irregular shapes and lush colors of Yamagata Prefecture in the north of Japan, with human characters often a tiny aspect of a landscape shaped by generations of agriculture.
There's an artistic distinction as well between the scenes set in the present (vibrant, sharply delineated) and those in Taeko's memories of childhood (painterly watercolors that fade at the edges). Happily single at 27, the heroine nonetheless feels a lack that draws her to the country, and in flashbacks we see a shy girl not sure of where she fits in the pack, either at school or at home. Parts of "Only Yesterday" require a cultural leap for non-Japanese viewers: The silent, judgmental figure of the father (Masahiro Ito), who in one shocking scene doles out a slap to his youngest daughter, is meant as a typical patriarch of the period rather than a villain. The buzzy schoolgirl discussions about menstruation would be verboten in a Disney flick but are part of this film's placid and charming frankness. These scenes are reminiscent of the great movies about childhood, such as Truffaut's "Small Change."
Only in an animated film, though, could you have a moment like the one in which the young Taeko walks away from a conversation with an equally shy little boy and steps suddenly into the air, soaring lyrically all the way home. A love story is part of the modern scenes as well, as Taeko is befriended by Toshio (Toshiro Yanagiba), who has left office life behind to become an organic farmer in the country. "Only Yesterday" lets the relationship progress at a measured and realistic pace, though; it's a movie about finding one's place in the world rather than simply finding a soul-mate.
The farming sequences are the film's most poetic and visually arresting, with Taeko, Toshio, and his family harvesting fields of safflowers, tromping on and drying the petals until their yellow turns to the rich red that will be used for rouge sold to women in the city. Takahata uses Hungarian folk music on the soundtrack in these scenes — Toshio is a fan — and the unusual choice takes "Only Yesterday" out of its specific cultural moment and into a larger sense of centuries passing and the planet turning.
The movie will probably go over the heads of little children, but it's certainly for thoughtful older kids and their parents. The English language dub, featuring Daisy Ridley — Rey of "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" — as the adult Taeko and Dev Patel ("Slumdog Millionaire") as Toshio, is fine as these things go, but the subtitled original is preferred if you and your crew are up for it. In any event, it's a lovely movie, and I hope you get to see it.
★ ★ ★ ½
Written and directed by Isao Takahata. With the voices of Miki Imai and Toshiro Yanagiba, or Daisy Ridley and Dev Patel. At Kendall Square. 119 minutes. PG (thematic elements, some rude behavior and smoking). In Japanese; screening in dubbed and subtitled versions (check theater listings).