Friday, June 08, 2007

Omohide poro poro (Only Yesterday, Isao Takahata, 1991)

(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 HĂ´hokekyo 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.


Daniel Thomas MacInnes said...

This is a really terrific essay on Omohide Poro Poro! Great work! I'll be sure to make mention of it in the Ghibli blog. Have you considered linking the post to Internet Movie Database? You'd add it to their External Links section, which would help add more exposure to this great film.

Noel Vera said...

Thanks. Actually I have a number of films I want to submit articles on to IMDb. Hopefully soon.

Mike said...

That was an excellent discussion of one of my favorite films.


Noel Vera said...

Thanks! I do think Takahata's a master, and this is an underrated masterwork.

LLJ said...

This is a very special film for me, and a film I'd grappled with for almost 10 years before finally embracing it wholeheartedly.

Some background: I first came across this film in my early 20s, and like the child you mentioned in your essay, I found the '66 Taeko scenes to be the highlight of the film, while the '82 Taeko scenes to be be "filler" material. As such, I found Only Yesterday amusing, but not something I intended to revisit later on.

Flash forward a few years--now 26 years old and for some reason, the film had remained in my mind all those years despite my initial lukewarm-at-best reaction to it. I gave it another viewing and this time I liked it considerably better than initially, but I still felt like I was missing something crucial. The difference now was that I felt the fault lay with me--I was not grasping that one crucial thing that really drove the film. I could sense the greatness now, and saw the skill and craftsmanship, but I just couldn't find that important light switch.

I re-watched the film a few more times for the next 2 years, each time getting that much closer to finding what exactly kept bringing me back to it time and time again. Eventually, I reached a point where I found all the pieces, but I just needed that one thread tying everything together.

Around 2008 or so, I came across your essay here, and then it finally clicked together. All those scenes of '82 Taeko trying just a bit too hard to please, all those scenes of '66 Taeko getting her free spirit stamped...everything came together for me. And it was devastating. It finally dawned on me how quietly heartbreaking Only Yesterday actually was, to see how these little seemingly innocuous vignettes slowly chipped away at '66 Taeko and ultimately ending up with the very lost woman we see in 1982.

Now that the film is finally touring North America through the Ghibli retrospectives, it's interesting trying to guage critical and audience opinions on it, the majority of which so far tend to mirror my initial lukewarm response to it. I try my best now to encourage others to consider further interpretations, with your essay now in my mind as an idea springboard.

Anyway, this was a long comment for a pretty old blog post, but I just wanted to thank you for giving me that little push I needed to embrace it. It truly is a layered gem of a film, and one of the very, very, select few I've changed my opinion on so drastically.

Noel Vera said...

I don't get a lot of comments in this blog, and yours is easily the most perceptive and well-written I've read to date. Thank you for posting it.

Anonymous said...

I really liked the review, but I have to say I don't agree at all with your interpretation of the ending. Or rather, I can't bring myself to agree with it as I think that part is what gives the film such thematic weight and closure.

Memories not only shape who we are, how we act, they can also have a direct effect in our current lives. Taeko's introspection and contemplation of her past throughout the movie is the catalyst that pushes her to make a life-changing decision at the end; and to me it's not overly sentimental, nor a cop-out. How could I call it a cop-out when it's one of the most natural and satisfying instances of character development I've ever seen?
It's even more poignant when you process the visual metaphor: her past self is what guides her to a better path in life. That sharp, honest and even slightly selfish girl (as you well said in your post) gives the adult Taeko the little push (or rather guidance, see how gently she forces her) that was missing to finally break away of the dull conforming she had become accustomed to. The last stare she gives in the film (the very last shot, I think) is haunting precisely because this time it's the child looking at the adult.

I have read some people saying that the film didn't 'hit' them until that last scene, that they didn't even realize how much was going on until that happens. That's the subtle power of the scene, and of Omohide as a whole. Because, for all the bitter-sweetness of Taeko's childhood and the decay of her current situation, the final message is still a positive one. It tells us that coming of age never stops, that we can still change for the better, and that this change can come from within. We just have to sit back and reflect.

Noel Vera said...

Oh, I don't think it's a cop-out, or sentimental at all; I think it's beautifully done.

That said, it does happen after the credits, and what happens before can be--not necessarily so--considered a coherent whole, the resolution left hanging. Strictly my taste, but I love it like that.

Noel Vera said...

Plus I did raise the possibility this post-credit resolution only takes place in Taeko's mind. Not saying you're wrong, but there's more than one way to take the scene, and I like that ambiguity. You don't get that kind of multiple interpretative levels in Pixar.

Anonymous said...

Yes, I wasn't saying you were wrong either, just giving my take on it. Honestly my post was more a way to rant a bit about the film, because it's so hard to talk about it anywhere due to how unknown it is.

I don't always prefer "happy endings" but I thought it was earned by the characters and the director in Omohide.
I think I can see where you're coming from, your take on it would perhaps make the film more plainly realistic (which it is for most of its run). Either way it'd still be a masterpiece.

Noel Vera said...

"Either way it'd still be a masterpiece"

No argument there

Doyu Shonin/Risa Bear said...

I weep uncontrollably when the child vanishes in the end. Mr. Takahata hit a deeper place in me than any other director, with any other film.

Noel Vera said...

He's different from Miyazaki, the way a sculptor is different from a surgeon.

iamliza said...

I just watched the film and Google search led me to your review. What an insightful piece. Thank you.

Noel Vera said...

Tenk yew!

Richa said...

Hi Noel. You have done a great job with your write-up here about the film. As much as I loved the film, I loved your narrative connecting the missing pieces. I happen to have watched it today and after finishing the movie, I felt a void because somewhere we all have lost our truest self in the process of growing up and conforming to societal norms. But apart from this personal feeling, I was not able to fathom the deepest meaning of Taeko 82 remembering the guy who was mean to her but your explanation just made so sense and I got a closure with the Taeko 66 character. I look forward to reading more of your narratives :)

Noel Vera said...

Glad to have provided closure!

Anonymous said...

[A different anonymous to the previous anonymous poster ...]

... but I wanted to add something else about the ending. To me (and perhaps my interpretation is wrong here) but the start of the credits is one of the truly great fakeouts in cinema. Taeko's goodbyes are cruelly cut short by the old, balding passenger rudely pushing past her to make the train -- anything she could have said, or might have said at the end is lost. That random passenger is a horrible jarring note of reality, his radio blaring inane music, spoiling the mood; when I saw this the first time I was filled with the pathos of how much I wanted Taeko not to leave this way, with all her growing feelings left unsaid.

Takeo can't stand the random passenger either, gets up from the seat she's initially chosen as the credits start to role and the closing theme song starts to play ... and then the animation frame freezes as she walks away, back to us, for five full seconds. Everything says "fade to black" at this point; the viewer is resigned at her loss, possibly consoling themselves with the thought that at least Taeko will be returning to visit again in winter.

What happens next breaks my heart every time I watch it (and even when I think of it). I love everything about the sequence, most especially the slow reveal of timid 10yo Taeko after all of her classmates have appeared from the seats around her -- always the shy one, always the one who didn't fit in. The courage of Takahata to ever so slowly bring little Taeko-chan around to her older self, in three separate shots, takes my breath away. By that point, anyone who isn't onside with young Taeko must surely have a heart of stone. And Takahata still isn't finished -- he insists that older Taeko process her thoughts for several seconds more, seemingly oblivious (and what an extraordinary held shot that is) before finally acting.

And it all makes so much sense within the arc of the film. After all, Taeko-chan has appeared with her older self once before, near the start of the film, when 27yo Taeko is sitting gazing wistfully out her night train window with her back to us. Young Taeko puts her head out of the closest sleeping compartment curtains, looks at her older self in the distance -- but then turns and sees us, the viewers, and draws right back out of sight. (Perhaps the most understated fourth-wall break ever.) The credits, in bringing young and old Taeko together, not only give all of Taeko's reminiscences meaning, but they also resolve the promise from this early scene.

The two Taekos were always going to meet; there had to be a resolving of the memories from 1966 in the world of 1982, completing the personal transformation that Taeko tells us (again on the night train) that she feels is coming. But Takahata's genius is to make us wait until it's almost (almost!) too late.