I was not able to attend the CAAM Film Festival, so the film that I chose to watch was the 1991 Studio Ghibli animation Only Yesterday directed by Isao Takahata, whose work includes other classic animations such as Grave of the Fireflies and The Tale of Princess Kaguya. Takahata is one of the pioneers of Studio Ghibli along with Hayao Miyazaki. Takahata’s films are characterized as completely unconventional to the Japan’s anime genre. Films such as Only Yesterday and Grave of the Fireflies are marked by their stoic nature of imitating reality and society rather than the typical fantasy and world building of animation. However, Only Yesterday still remained a public success in Japan’s box office and a critic’s favorite worldwide. The film follows a woman named Taeko who is nearing the end of her youth and opportunity to find marriage. Taking a break from her work and daily urban life, Taeko decides to work on the countryside for a week and recollect her roots. While this narrative is going on, Takahata simultaneously introduces a series of anecdotes to when Taeko was in the 5th grade. While most movies and TV shows tend to use flashbacks to try build character arcs or blatantly calls for the audience to sympathize with a character’s past, Taeko’s 5th grade self feels more as if it was its own character who remains separate from the older Taeko and must overcome her own struggles throughout the movie. Takahata does his part to make sure that kid Taeko’s presence is firmly stamped in the movie as well. For instance, as most of the film takes place in a believable Japanese society where people are subject under societal and familial structure, there is a moment where Taeko solely breaks the film’s contrived reality. As she begins to crush for the first time on the school’s star baseball player, Taeko begins to fly through the skies, exploring all of her newfound emotions, similar to Aladdin’s flying scene. It’s in these minute moments that I’m truly in awe of Takahata’s mastery over his own story and his ability to purposefully break his film’s suspense of disbelief to fully evoke the emotions of his characters.
Another thing that caught my eye from the beginning of the film was its opening credits scene. With the text on the screen being placed over a background picture of a woven mat, Takahata was paying tribute to the classic Japanese director, Yasujiro Ozu. After catching onto this bit, I began to notice what cinematic techniques Takahata directly took from Ozu, i.e. the “pillow shot” and shooting a “frame within a frame.” The “pillow shot” is a short filler shot that transitions one scene to the next by shooting the scenery of the location before focusing on the characters. Ozu popularized this shot as he never believed in using cross fades or any editing in post that detracted from the believability of the film’s environment and portrayal of Japanese society. Moreover, the “frame within a frame” shot was also commonly used in Ozu’s films where his characters are placed within a frame in the film’s environment, typically a boxed room or window. These shots often emphasized Ozu’s themes of characters living within Japan’s familial and societal roles. These various cinematic techniques fit within Only Yesterday’s overarching themes as well, as both young and adult Taeko are learning how to find meaning and individual worth within Japan’s rigid societal structures.
Though Takahata takes on many different relevant themes in his film, one of his most prominent topics is gender. In one scene, 5th grade Taeko struggles with growing up in a family where she is constantly being passed down clothes and accessories by her two older sisters. When Taeko is offered a hand-me down purse by her older sister, she refuses to stand her ground as her own individual. But when her whole family goes out for dinner, Taeko is frustrated with her image and decides to stay home even though she wants to go. In this scene, Taeko is shown chasing her parents and begging them to let her go with them. However, the father slaps her face as he becomes frustrated with her acting unlady-like, running outside without her shoes. This subtle and complex scene explores what it means to mature as a girl in a society where image and propriety are the societal standards of women. As Taeko desires be an individual within her familial system, this wish is contradicted by her other desire to mature into Japanese society as a woman. When Taeko becomes flustered by which position she should choose, her indecisiveness is immediately cut off by the domineering presence of her father. Her father in many ways embodies the strictness of Japan’s patriarchal society, caring more about Taeko fitting into society’s gender roles rather than her personal struggles as a girl. To me, as a male viewer, this scene was eye-opening. I felt that this scene complicated my notion of what it’s like to grow up as a woman that must constantly fit society’s standards. And it helped me realize that I should always strive to act with awareness and empathy as even the struggles of a 5th grade girl growing up may be endlessly complex.
For my artwork, I wanted to draw something that was aesthetically simple and beautiful and also felt close to home. So I did a sketch of what was on my dining table
My Storyboard: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1wnzs0yZOVvBnAaIfTu1rRctXfKFR1jOjYZExJXLiPSE/edit
Official Film Link: http://onlyyesterdayfilm.com/