We tend to think of the past as static, as though our personal history could be condensed down into frozen moments like pictures in a children’s book. But just as our present is shaped by our past, our past is shaped by our present; not only in the way that memories erode and reshape themselves to suit our current circumstances, but in the way we reinterpret moments through new lenses. Our memories are forever transforming through the kaleidoscopic fragments that we collect into ourselves.
There are few better realisations of this than Isao Takahata’s Only Yesterday. A comparatively modest Studio Ghibli feature, it eschews fantasy in favour of almost-banal reality, telling the story of 27 year-old office worker Taeko (Miki Imia/Daisy Ridley in the recently-recorded English dub) as she travels into the past both physically – on a trip into country – and psychically, reliving moments from her preteens.
The simplicity of this story is its strength; yes, there’s a flirtation with her school crush Toshio (now an organic farmer voiced by Toshirō Yanagiba/Dev Patel), but there’s no attempt to weave Taeko’s reminiscences into some grand romantic fable. Rather, Takahata – who also wrote the screenplay – gently interrogates how Taeko is shaped by her past but also how she shapes her past to suit the woman she’s become: someone quieter, and meeker, and less ambitious than the vibrant girlchild she once was.
There’s an authenticity to Taeko’s story that lends its reflections a quiet power. For example, an early interlude where Taeko and her pubescent friends are shamed and teased by the boys for their periods comes across as uniquely genuine (further investigation suggests that we can credit the female author of the source manga, Okamoto Hotaru). These little episodes initially seem slight, but they accumulate into a poignant portrait of a young woman whose spirited individuality is gradually subsumed by societal expectations.
That’s most profoundly realised in the story of an acting career that wasn’t. Young Taeko is offered a spot in a university acting troupe after a successful stint in a school play, but the opportunity bleeds away when her father forbids her to participate. The pang of lost potential is something everyone should be able to resonate with, and it’s deepened further when one of Taeko’s classmates accepts the opportunity and Taeko is ordered by her mother to keep the offer secret, lest she hurt the other girl’s feelings.
Retelling the story in the present day, Taeko attempts to laugh off the incident, explaining she later joined a drama group at university and found her talents had evaporated. But her excuses aren’t entirely convincing, and we begin to understand that this story – of talent that never truly was – is something she’s told herself again and again to lessen the pain she still feels. The tragedy here is not necessarily the acting career that never eventuated, but the way Taeko has so wholly absorbed the restrictive social parameters of politeness, whether it’s her father’s disapproval of ‘show business’ or her mother’s well-intended but constrictive secrecy.
Only Yesterday is not always so dark. It teaches us that our history is plastic, that we can reshape it to relearn the optimism of youth, to regain the possibilities of the past. At one point, Toshio explains to Taeko that a young boy she thought hated her may have actually been in love with her, and in so doing she begins to see that there’s no one truth, no one past, no one future. The child we once were is not gone forever. Not if we let them live.