Starring (voices): Daisy Ridley, Alison Fernandez, Dev Patel
Rated PG for Thematic Elements, Some Rude Behavior and Smoking
Studio Ghibli is one of the best secrets in filmmaking. Time and time again they release complex, artistically innovative and emotionally rich motion pictures, and yet their films have never broken into the mainstream. It's a shame because Pixar, their closest cousin, has got nothing on them. Not all of their films are flawless, but they are compulsively watchable. If only for the visuals.
One thing that sets the studio apart is that they are unafraid of breaking the conventions of animation. Hollywood's animated movies, even the best ones like "Beauty and the Best" or anything by Pixar, are very busy. There's always something going on and always, always, plenty of action and broad comedy. Studio Ghibli, which releases anime, is more patient. It allows the characters to pause, to think, to consider what they're going to say and do. In fact, many of their films, such as "Whisper of the Heart" or "Only Yesterday," could conceivably be filmed in live action with some CGI. But they know how freeing animation is. These films are not bound by the laws of physics or lighting. We see exactly what the director wants to see and how he sees it. The dark becomes darker and the light becomes darker. It's all about how they use their tools, and no one knows better than master filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki (who produced this film) and his friend and contemporary, Isao Takahata (who directed it).
"Only Yesterday" is not strong on story. It's about a woman who is going on vacation to work on a farm and on the way she finds herself reflecting on her experiences as a ten year old. The movie is a lot more interesting while watching it unspool than in the one sentence pitch, I promise you. That's because the lead character, Taeko (Fernandez as a child, Ridley as an adult), is written so specifically and with so much honesty that she becomes a fascinating individual. Guy or girl, everyone who watches this movie will flash back to when they were ten. It knows how kids at that age thought and acted, and more importantly, how they felt about growing up.
That last aspect of the film caused a bit of a controversy for Disney. Disney owns Studio Ghibli, but they were unwilling to release this film because it was aimed at kids and dealt with menstruation. One of the stipulations of ownership is that Disney cannot edit a film from Ghibli, which put the film's US release in limbo. Fortunately, a company called GKIDS acquired the rights to the film from Disney and Ghibli and the film was released without edits.
Disney's position baffles me. For one thing, menstruation is a part of growing up, which this film acknowledges. Were there no women at Disney? I know for a fact that there are. Secondly, it is portrayed as a part of growing up, not sexuality. It's dealt with honestly and practically. Nothing that anyone could consider controversial is shown. Playing the devil's advocate, the most graphic moment is when a little boy lifts up the skirt of a girl (who isn't menstruating) and calls her "period girl." Explosive, huh? It's not at all graphic, and considering the context, important to the story.
The voice acting is effective, but by nature it's low-key. The characters are played pretty close to the bone, which enhances the film's effect. Dev Patel and Daisy Ridley don't have a lot of chemistry, but they do good work.
One thing I didn't care for was the environmentalist, pro-labor scenes. It's not that I disagree with them, but that they take too long and don't fit. The film works best when it sticks to character development and the coming of age stuff. The film's strongest portions are the flashbacks, although I think that's kind of the point.
Animation, particularly anime, isn't highly respected as filmmaking. They're considered "kid's stuff." While this is certainly appropriate for pre-teens, this is great and enriching entertainment for adults. When I make my Top 10 list this year, "Only Yesterday" will certainly be on it.