In recent times, Hollywood film has become a medium that prides itself on looking onward and upward. Entering a dark cinema has often been touted as an experience, one which demands a swift departure from a too-familiar world. Only Yesterday refuses its audience this easy satisfaction. This 2016 re-release of the 1991 Studio Ghibli classic film revolves around Taeko, a 27 year old single woman from Tokyo (voiced by Daisy Ridley), whose journey by train to the countryside compels her to look back on her 5th grade self (voiced by Alison Fernandez), as she stands on the boundaries between being single in the city, or embracing the countryside and the idea of ‘settling down’. She works the fields with Toshio, a small town farmer (voiced by Dev Patel), who acts as her guide through the countryside, but also in whom she sees her past.
With regard to the dubbed voices, this new English dubbed version of Only Yesterday was solid, but by no means a seamless interpretation of the 1991 version. Daisy Ridley’s voicing of Taeko was a wonderful juxtaposition to Taeko’s childhood self, voiced by Allison Fernandez. Fernandez brilliantly articulates Taeko’s innocence as well as the pettiness and tantrums that too accompany childhood, tempered by the calm and thoughtful narrative musings of Ridley. Dev Patel too fares admirably as the charming and easy going Toshio, though his British accent jarred somewhat against the backdrop of an otherwise American voice cast. Though this inconsistency may have attempted to highlight the difference in backgrounds between Toshio and Taeko, it certainly made for some unnatural exchanges between the pair, and took some getting used to for this viewer. Difficulties in articulating the nuances of the Japanese language also presented itself, in an odd moment where Taeko put on a Southern accent. In a filmic landscape that is so unmistakeably Japanese, awareness of the linguistic and cultural differences must be a forefront consideration of dubbers, who toe the line between making Japanese films accessible to English-speaking audiences, and Americanising Japanese films.
Only Yesterday is directed by Isao Takahata, who is perhaps most well-known for directing Graveyard of the Fireflies. (One might describe that film as one delicately interwoven with grief – in other words, a traumatic sob-fest.) While Only Yesterday preoccupies itself with nostalgia rather than grief, it is to both that Takahata brings his exceptional ability to tell stories that are beautifully uncomfortable. Takahata does not romanticise Taeko’s childhood, focusing not upon the ‘good old days’, but on the keen immediacy of growing pains. It is these stories that never really leave Taeko, like the time the class thought that she had gotten her period; or how she threw a tantrum and was slapped by her father for the first and last time. In these episodes Takahata lingers, focusing a fraction longer than necessary on scenes that are difficult to watch. It is in that extra fraction that the existence of such scenes are authenticated by viewers themselves, touched by Taeko’s own prickling discomfort. Such filmic techniques, combined with Takahata’s magnetic storytelling gives voice to those odd-shaped stories of childhood that are too often thought to bear no mention, redefining what it means to be nostalgic both for Taeko and audiences alike.
A profound and unmistakeable meditation on what it means to look back, Only Yesterday’s tender themes implores audiences old and new to turn toward the past – to accept the soreness that yesterday may bring, but also acknowledging how such experiences are only a train ride away.
Review Score: FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
All screenings of ONLY YESTERDAY will be in the new English dub unless otherwise stated in the following cinema listing here.
For locations and more, visit the Studio Ghibli website.