(In memory of the late Isao Takahata 1935 - 2018)
The way we were
Takahata is less well-known than his Oscar-winning colleague Hayao Miyazaki but for those familiar with both, his work is arguably equal if not superior. His best-known, Hotaru no haka (Grave of the Fireflies, 1988), is considered by Roger Ebert one of the world's greatest war films, comparable to Spielberg's Schindler's List (Ebert frankly is talking out of his colonoscope: Hotaru is far superior to Schindler's). I've discussed Hotaru several times, though never dared write a full-length article--its DVD release, on several occasions defending the film's tragic nature, even replying to the question of why it was animated in the first place.
I've written about Takahata's Pom Poko (The Raccoon War, 1994), which depicts warfare on a far wider and more complex scale than Hotaru and is almost as unbearable to watch, and think his Hôhokekyo tonari no Yamada-kun (My Neighbor the Yamadas, 1999) a better 'family film' than say Edward Yang's Yi-Yi (A One and a Two, 2000).
Omohide poro poro (Only Yesterday, 1991) is (compared to Hotaru) considerably more lighthearted and (compared to Pom Poko) smaller in scale, but you find the same subtle handling of character nuance with perhaps a more complex appreciation of time memory nostalgia. Arguably this is Takahata's time-travel film, and I would argue a major work--not only by Takahata, but by Studio Ghibli.
We see the main character Taeko in two modes: as an adult in 1982 (voice of Miki Imai) her world rendered with the kind of ultrarealistic detail and subdued color palette that is the hallmark of Studio Ghibli, and as a ten-year-old child (voice of Yoko Honna) in 1966, her world distinctly stylized with the backgrounds resembling watercolors, the edges left unfinished. It's a minor detail those unfinished edges but for me a haunting one: when you recall an image from memory, do you focus on the background? No you focus on what's immediately before you. The backgrounds are, as in this film, hazy somehow incomplete.
The change from '82 to '66 is instantaneous--no transitional music, no fading focus or wavering image. It can be confusing to follow, until you realize that color scheme (from realistic to watercolor and back again) is key. Takahata also offer clues as to where you are (and why you're there) helped along by Taeko's voiceover narration, and soon you follow the convention easily enough (What do you experience when diving into a long-ago memory--music or wavy images? No--the change happens as quickly and matter-of-fact as a cut).
Taeko in '82 is a Tokyo office worker who spends her summer in the Yamagata countryside, where she helps in the safflower harvest--an odd way of vacationing but as we learn from the flashbacks Taeko was always an odd child, sticking out of the crowd even when she didn't mean to. When we first see the ten-year-old Taeko, she wants to conform--her classmates are going to their respective hometowns for the summer and since she and her family are already from Tokyo they have no town to go home to (the grown-up Taeko says, arriving at Yamagata, that she's happy to finally have one (her sister married into a Yamagata family)). A sad but at the same time funny image (Takahata in this film mixes pathos and comedy with effortless skill) is of Taeko at the public park doing calisthenics before tape-recorded music, with someone manning the tape recorder and one other person exercising beside her (her companion says she's going back to her hometown too, and a later shot shows Taeko at it completely alone). Taeko can't help sticking out; it's not her fault that unlike her classmates she was born in Tokyo, not her fault that she does what she does or thinks the way she does.
Meanwhile, the '82 Taeko almost effortlessly slides into the flow of countryside life. She arrives at Yamagata on the night train so she can go straight to the safflower fields and start the early morning picking (she's a night person, and has difficulty waking up early); she smiles at her in-laws and treats her younger sister-in-law as an equal and confidante. And she has just met a nephew who likes Hungarian folk music ("I like it because it's for peasants and I'm a peasant") and looks like he might become her closest friend.
It's a straightforward idyll almost dully so; an eleven-year-old girl who saw the film expressed the opinion that the younger Taeko's story is much more engaging (the '82 sequence where Takahata goes into a detailed explanation of how safflower turns into lipstick (with a vivid red dye as byproduct)--a for me wonderful little interlude--didn't seem to impress her much). If there's anything at all interesting about the '82 Taeko, it's the mystery of why she'd want to pick safflowers in the first place. Yes, we know she wants a countryside vacation--most Japanese do, we're told--but on a farm?
More there's her manner of behavior. She's ingratiating almost unsettlingly so; of her time in Tokyo she says almost nothing--if she talks it's mostly about her ten-year-old self. Says a few things about her, I think: that life in Tokyo holds little relevance to her; that life in Yamagata is something she aspires to, its folk people she wants to know. The desire to fit in and belong is so strong it's a wonder someone doesn't point it out (which, in fact, someone at one point does).
Takahata weaves both Taekos and their respective stories into a multifaceted view of the woman. The young Taeko is the film's comic heart--and in fact Takahata adopted the film from a manga by Hotaru Okamoto, about a ten-year-old girl dealing with the fifth grade (Takahata added the adult framework along the way). By looking at the young girl through the prism of a grown woman Takahata adds a--no not nostalgia, that's too easy--mediating distance to the material, a thoughtful consciousness that looks back Our Town-style and realizes how simple even stupid little details in one's childhood acquire, through the perspective of sixteen years, a significance that looms over the colorless present.
Thus a seemingly pointless episode with a pineapple that the father brings home one day becomes, in retrospect, Taeko's introduction to the mystery of differing tastes. When she chews on her first-ever piece there's puzzlement even disappointment but not outright rejection; if she eventually agrees that the commonplace banana (and not the pineapple) is king of fruits, it's partly because (you sense) her capitulating to the opinions of the rest of her family. Though she knows what she thinks and feels she hasn't learned to express herself, and this failure of self-expression will be a common motif repeated throughout the film.
The issue of menstruation*--funny enough when Taeko's small bout of flu is mistaken for signs of a monthly period--become a metaphor for the evolving nature of the human body (not to mention the female body, hers in particular). Here the subtext is Taeko not learning to express herself, but (with the help of a fellow classmate who is having her period) to accept herself and the ongoing changes. The '82 Taeko realizes that part of the reason why she's remembering episodes from that period of her life--from the period of the '66 Taeko--is because she was changing then, much as she's changing now. Like the '66 Taeko, the '82 Taeko is becoming something other than herself, and it's either accept the change or reject the change; accept one's self or reject one's self.
*Sadly, the very mention means that the Disney-distributed DVD release of this film has been shelved indefinitely, which is a shame (same case, I assume for the Ghibli TV movie Umi ga kikoeru (Ocean Waves, 1993), where menstruation also plays a role in the story). What, the Rat Factory refuses to acknowledge the reality of a woman's monthly cycle? How very odd not to mention perverse, if not actually obscene...
The transformation process reaches a crisis point when seemingly out of nowhere Taeko is made an offer to stay in Yamagata--not just as worker but as full-fledged family member (sister of an in-law must have felt a tad tenuous). Taeko is stunned; her mind flies back to perhaps the single most memorable moment in her youth, when an uncouth boy transferred to her class and was seated beside her. He slouched, shuffled his feet, wore a perennially sullen face, spat, picked his nose; when asked to shake hands with the class, he told Taeko point-blank: "I don't want to shake hands with you." Taeko demonizes this figure, makes him represent everything she believes she despises and--worse--feels guilty for despising. More, part of her horror is in recognizing not what's different about him (his slouch, his nose-picking), but what's similar. Like her he stuck out; the fact should have been the basis of a friendship but instead was basis for a wary sometimes cruel relationship. That sense of wasted opportunity, of nursing a contempt she feels obligated to hold against anyone different from the accepted Tokyo norm--in marked even perverse contrast to her own defiance of those same norms--that's what flashes to her mind given this opportunity to join with her Yamagata family.
Both the '82 and '66 Taeko have an epiphany, and it's a traumatic moment. Takahata presents her way of dealing with the trauma twofold: the '82 Taeko, ostensibly wiser and more sophisticated, must have everything explained to her (and by the one person most concerned with her happiness, of all people); the '66 Taeko for all her awkwardness and apparent cluelessness is far cannier, speaking not a single word yet expressing herself more clearly. Perhaps the single most poignant moment in the film not to mention funniest has the young girl shuffling down the street, shoulders slouched, spitting and scowling and picking her nose--a sign of solidarity in effect; a tribute to a lost friend.
The ending--I've heard accusations that it's sentimental, a cop-out. But I think it significant that the resolution takes place after the credits start rolling; as far as Takahata is concerned the story is over and what happens after is a concession to us--is possibly even some kind of scenario playing out in Taeko's head (I also think it significant that only when the credits roll do both Taeko '82 and Taeko '66 appear together in the same frame for any length of time, the entire sequence in fact).
Takahata, more than Miyazaki in Tonari no Totoro (My Neighbor Totoro, 1988) is in my opinion the true animation heir to the kind of quotidian Japanese cinema practiced by masters like Yasujiro Ozu and Mikio Naruse; he tells a story subtly swiftly without resorting to fantasy or science fiction, in such a way as to evoke the most tightly knotted emotions.
Along the way he comments on society in the '60s and society today, or at least society during the period of the film's making (not long after the Japanese economic bubble burst, when you see stirrings of the kind of spiritual crisis Japan must have been experiencing at the time). He needles the Japanese need to conform and questions the Japanese (and very American) drive for material success, suggesting that inner peace and oneness with nature are at least equal if not superior alternative means to happiness (along the way he notes the irony found in safflower picking--a labor-intensive process worked mostly by women that results in a product too expensive for said women to use). He also in evoking the ten-year-old Taeko asks us not to remember her innocence or immaturity or naked inexpressible yearning for something (exactly what even she doesn't know) but her honesty. He acknowledges that ten-year-olds often know their feelings better than we do, know what they want better than we do; that is their gift, and what we've lost since.