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Only Yesterday review: You couldn’t legally watch this amazing Japanese film in the US — until now

This anime classic has taken 25 years to make it to our shores.

Young Taeko is just one half of the beautiful Only Yesterday.
Young Taeko is just one half of the beautiful Only Yesterday.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

The Japanese film Only Yesterday, released in 1991, has been called a masterpiece. It's made lists of the greatest animated films — or just the greatest films — ever made. It's largely hailed as a landmark in the development of anime.



And until now, you couldn't see in the United States (not legally, anyway).

The film aired once, in 2006, on Turner Classic Movies, and has been screened a couple of times elsewhere since then. But by and large, it has been unavailable to Americans. However, it's in theaters now, thanks to animation distributor GKIDS, and you should see it.

Only Yesterday brings a dreamlike quality to real life

Only Yesterday
As a young girl, Taeko has a first crush.

Only Yesterday centers on the life of a young woman named Taeko across two very different time periods. When the film begins, Taeko is 27 years old and living in 1980s Tokyo. But an upcoming trip to the countryside leaves her thinking back to her childhood, reminiscing on her experience as a fifth-grader in the 1960s and thinking about all the ways that version of herself is the same as and different from her adult self.

That's it. Taeko travels to the country and gets a taste of the farming life, while her younger self has the usual sort of coming-of-age adventures we might expect, from sex ed classes to a first crush to frustrations with schoolwork. But Only Yesterday is not a story high on incident. It's about a young girl growing up, and a young woman wondering if she's lost track of her most essential self.

The film is reminiscent of the work of American director Richard Linklater, who's most famous for movies like Dazed and Confused, the Before Sunrise trilogy, and Boyhood. Like much of Linklater's work, Only Yesterday meanders and takes its time with its storytelling. At times, you'll wonder if it has anything more to offer than pleasant incidents. And when you reach the end, you'll feel emotionally overwhelmed by how it knits together all of these incidents into a larger story about what it means to be a human being.

Only Yesterday was directed by Isao Takahata, who is occasionally (and unfairly) labeled as the "other" great director who worked at Japan's Stubio Ghibli, one of the most important animation houses in the world.

Takahata's co-worker Hayao Miyazaki (he of My Neighbor Totoro and Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away) has rightly been acclaimed as a masterful director the world over. But Takahata is too often discussed in Miyazaki's shadow (at least in the West), when he should be standing proudly on his own.

Only Yesterday, his follow-up to the devastating World War II film Grave of the Fireflies (1988), encapsulates what Takahata does so very well. If Miyazaki imbues dreams with some of the emotional reality of real life, then Takahata imbues some of the most mundane events of real life — characters sampling a pineapple, say — with the feeling of a dream.

Yes, Only Yesterday is a simple coming-of-age tale, but it's also very smart about the way our younger selves haunt us well into adulthood, always asking why we're not the people we thought we would be. The film's animation is spare but lyrical; it feels as if past might blend into present, or the reverse.

Only Yesterday explores the gap between someone's past and present

Only Yesterday.
Taeko travels to the country as an adult.

The childhood portions of Only Yesterday are based on a popular Japanese manga, but the sections following Taeko to the farm are Takahata's invention. And they sometimes feel a bit cloying, honestly, because they employ such shopworn clichés as the city girl who learns more about life from visiting the country (and from the young man she meets there).

But every time Only Yesterday begins to drift off course, Takahata shifts back toward his central notion of a woman reflecting on her life with some melancholy, but also some joy. Taeko isn't just bittersweet about the differences between her fifth-grade self and her 27-year-old self. She also finds some joy in getting reacquainted with the person she was, who's been living alongside her all along.

In particular, Takahata's approach crystallizes during a moment late in the film, when Taeko tells Toshio (the young man from the country who is also her love interest) a story from her childhood that particularly haunts her. In this scene, the director captures the way our memories catch on certain, specific details, or how they might spin out into entire remembrances rooted in a simple look back at a misspoken word or a particularly vivid color. But he also captures the way our memories can make us realize how little we've changed, if we know where to look.

Animation fans have been whispering about Only Yesterday for years, passing around bootlegs, but they're only just now enjoying easy access to it. Disney, which bought international rights to many Ghibli films in the 1990s (though GKIDS holds those rights now), didn't seem to know what to do with this one, perhaps because its plot resists easy description even more than most of the studio's catalog (and also, perhaps, because a significant portion of the film deals with young girls learning about their menstrual cycles).

At its core, Only Yesterday is about the inner emotional journey of a young woman, a subject Hollywood film has too often struggled to depict (though one that Ghibli has always been uniquely good at). There's no obvious marketing hook, no scene to stick in the trailer to intrigue people. Just a woman thinking about her past and trying to understand her future.

Even now, it's only arriving in theaters with the all-star voices of freshly minted Star Wars star Daisy Ridley and Slumdog Millionaire star Dev Patel in the cast of its English dub. It's not hard to see why audiences might reject the film, or why GKIDS would want to stack the deck in its favor.

But here's hoping viewers will find this lovely little tale. Only Yesterday can test your patience, especially in the early going, but I wouldn't change a second of the way it unfolds. It's like taking a journey to some remote corner of the globe, the better to get away from yourself, only to realize you're both the best and most constant traveling companion you could have.

Only Yesterday is playing in New York and Los Angeles. It will expand to theaters throughout the country in the weeks to come.

Correction: This article originally stated John C. Reilly is in the voice cast of the English dub. He is not. It has been corrected.