(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 his films, his work is arguably equal, if not superior. His best-known, Hotaru no haka (Grave of the Firflies, 1988), Roger Ebert considers one of the world's greatest war films, and compares to Spielberg's Schindler's List (Ebert, frankly, is talking out of his colonoscope; Hotaru is a far finer film than 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 his 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) far smaller in scale, but you find here the same subtle handling of character nuance with perhaps a more complex appreciation of time memory and 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 in which Studio Ghibli excels, and as a ten-year-old child (voice of Youko Honna) in 1966, her world distinctly stylized with some of the backgrounds painted to look as if done with watercolors, the edges left unfinished. It's a minor detail, those unfinished edges, but for me a haunting one: when you remember an image, do you focus on the background? No, you focus on what's in front of 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 gives 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 transitioning to a long-ago memory--music or wavy images? No--the change occurs as quickly and matter-of-fact as an edit).
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 Takeo, ironically, she wants to conform--her classmates are going to their respective hometowns for the summer, and since she and her family come 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 combines pathos and comedy with effortless skill) is of Taeko at the public park, doing calisthenics before tape-recorded music, with one person 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 sticks out but she can't help sticking out; it's not her fault that, unlike most of her classmates, she was born in Tokyo; not her fault that she is the way she is 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 that 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 enough); she is constantly smiling 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 as if he might become her closest friend there.
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 at all. Yes, we know she wants to vacation in the countryside--most Japanese do, we're told--but spend a vacation farming?
More there's her manner of behavior while there. She's ingratiating almost unsettlingly so; of her time in Tokyo she says almost nothing--if she talks about herself, it's mostly about her ten-year-old self. That says a few things about her, I think: first, that life in Tokyo has almost no relevance to her at this point in time; second, that life in Yamagata is something she wishes to aspire to and work for, its folk people she wants to know, make good acquaintances if not friends. 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 together 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; it was Takahata who 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 and even stupid little details in one's childhood acquire, through the perspective of sixteen years, a significance that looms over the relatively 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) she's 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 again and again 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 ever-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 changes happening. 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 of this 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 family member. Taeko is stunned; her mind flies back to perhaps the single most traumatic period in her life, when an uncouth transfer student had come to her class, and was seated next to 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 to some extent demonizes this figure, makes him represent everything she despises and--worse--feels guilty for despising. More, part of her horror is in recognizing not what's so 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 the basis of a wary and sometimes involuntarily cruel relationship. That sense of wasted opportunity, of hiding a contempt she feels she must have for any person or lifestyle different from the accepted Tokyo norm, that's what flashes to her mind given this opportunity to join with her Yamagata family.
Both the '82 and '66 Taeko have had an epiphany, and it's a traumatic moment. Takahata presents her way of dealing with the trauma twofold: the '82 Taeko, apparently 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 far more clearly. Perhaps the single most poignant moment in the film and the funniest has the young girl shuffling down the street, her 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's significant that the resolution takes place after the credits start rolling; in effect what Takahata is telling us is that as far as he's concerned he is finished with the story and what happens after is a concession to us--is possibly even some kind of scenario played out in Taeko's mind (I think it's significant that it's only when the credits roll that 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 resort 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 time of the film's making (the movie was made not long after the Japanese economic bubble burst, and you see stirrings of the kind of spiritual crisis Japan must have been beginning to experience at the time). He needles the Japanese need to conform and questions the Japanese (and very American as well) drive for material success, suggesting that inner peace and oneness with nature are at least an equal if not superior alternative means to happiness (along the way he notes the irony found in safflower picking--a labor-intensive process worked 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 more often than not know their feelings better than we do, know what they want more than we do; that is their gift, that is what we've lost ever since.