Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Taking a second look at Only Yesterday (1991) and rambling on about Studio Ghibli's films

I was recently contacted by the PR people handling ONLY YESTERDAY and they asked me if I wanted to see the film again because the piece I had written on the film (it can be found here) was based on seeing the film approximately ten years ago. They wanted to know if I was willing to take another look at it and re-review the film. I of course said yes and they arranged for me to view the film.

Watching the film again for the first time in a decade I was struck by a couple of things.

The first thing was that I remember most of the film. Sequences would start and I would say to myself, this is the scene with the pineapple, or okay the end credit sequence is starting meaning it’s going to go this way.

The other thing that struck me was that while admire the animation in many of the sequences, there is a liveliness and realness that I don’t always see in Miyazaki’s work (This film was directed by his partner and in my eyes, superior Isao Takahata), I still don’t really care for the film that much. Its not that the film is bad, it’s not, but rather it’s not the sort of story that I can connect to (When the film was made it was thought it was going to be a film for women).

The plot of the film has Taeko, a 27 year old woman, leaving her job and going to stay in the country with a family that is is tangentially connected to. Over the course of the film she flash back to when she was in fifth grade. She also interacts with a younger version of herself. The film is  about Taeko trying to find herself , her place in the world and in some ways get away from being the fifth grade version of herself. That’s fine but to me it plays like a soap opera. Worse it feels kind of backward to me. To me the film really seems to be saying that all Taeko need to do was find a good man to be happy, which is kind of the antithesis of most Studio Ghibli films.

I could accept that she finds a place she loves and goes back- except that the ending makes it clear she was going back for a guy. I’m not saying she can’t, but I just find that a character such as Taeko would throw it all away for a guy. It’s a turn that makes her one of the oddest heroines in Ghibli history in that she’s the only one who really gives up her world for a guy. Yes most if not all of the Ghibli heroines connect with guys, but none seem seem to be giving up themselves or their strength- or if they are they act as Sophie in HOWLS MOVING CASTLE and she rescues her love first, there isn’t a passive act of giving herself over. Taeko shows none of the real strength that other women in the Ghibli oeuvre do. Every other heroine is a stronger personality and the relationships seem to be on more level ground.

And it’s something that would have bothered me even if it wasn’t Ghibli.

I would like to blame I on the graphic novels that the film is sourced from, but I haven’t read them. To me the film plays like a kind of soapy romance novel.  You know the one's that are massed produced and cookie cuttered from publishers like Harlequin, where all one needs is a good man to make a woman feel complete.  It feels like it’s a story for a shop girl who wants to dream of a better life and a sweet guy who can make it all better.Worse it feels like its a tale from a society which looks down on women and expects them to get married and have babies.

Its a well told tale but I would prefer a stronger female character who doesn't need a man...hell I would have preferred her not to turn around and go right back.

I don’t hate the film, I just don’t get why people are falling all over themselves about it. Is it because it’s Ghibli and instantly everyone think it’s top of the line?

And that's an interesting question are: Ghibli's films being heralded as great simply because they are Ghibli which some how makes them better than everything else that's out there. As some one who has literally seen almost every film that Ghibli has produced (including all but one of the Ghibli Museum films)  and as a big fan of animation I feel that I'm in a interesting position to answer that question.

The short answer is that I really do think Ghibli really does get the benefit of the doubt.

Many animation and anime fans drift to Ghibli automatically and go crazy for them. I've had people tell me that a Ghibli film they've hated is better than an American or French animated film simply because the Studio produced it.  And if you take it further- with in the Ghibli canon the Hayao Miyazaki films are held to be light years above all the others whether they are or not. I've had people tell me that while GRAVE OF FIREFLIES is great it's not as good as it could have been because Miyazaki didn't direct it.  I've also gotten into running battles over Ghibli films that no one had seen- The best example is I got into battles concerning  the studio's TALES FROM EARTHSEA with people who hadn't seen the film. To them the film wasn't good, sight unseen, in part because the Hayao didn't direct it but largely because Hayao bad mouthed his son's film. It was bad because some one who had an axe to grind said it was bad? Seriously? No one would listen to my assurance that the film was good. I am and have been a staunch supporter of the film because I liked it. But now that people have seen it I still have it maligned as not being  as good because of the battles. (An aside- I'm still waiting for a rediscovery especially since Goro Miyazaki's next film UP ON POPPY HILL was extremely well received)

To be fair most of the people falling all over the Ghibli films really haven't seen a great deal of animation. They see the hot films, the big Hollywood production but they don't see the films outside of that. They aren't well versed in French or East European animation. They haven't seen the inde American films. They don'tsearch stuff out or go to places like the New York International Children's Film Festival which brings the world's best animation to America.

And before you ask, I know because I've asked a bunch of them.

This isn't to say that the Ghibli films aren't works or art, some of them are, I' simply wouldn't argue that most are the best thing since sliced bread, since I could show you any number of films that kick many Ghibli film's ass.

And that swings me back to ONLY YESTERDAY.Here is the last Studio Ghibli feature to be released in the US. Why is that?

In doing research for this piece I went back through my notes, files and assorted scraps of nonsense and I found a couple of things that aren't readily apparent or probably remembered by some people.

First off when the film came out there was a limited market for animated films in the US. For the most part the only game in town was Disney and even then it was on a kind of life support. Yes BEAUTY AND THE BEAST would revive Disney's fortunes the same year big time, but it was still limping along, some five years after THE BLACK CAULDRON almost killed the studio.

The next problem with the film was there were no cute characters. Say what you will this film, despite the flashbacks, was all people and conventional American Studio wisdom was that audiences won't go to an animated film that's just people. They need something cute to get people in since unless it's science fiction or fantasy, no adult was ever going to go see an animated film.

The last problem preventing the film getting a US release was it's a girls story. According to a couple of things I've read the film was aimed at girls and women. Of course the film has found a wider audience, one can not be a top grossing film without it, but at the same time as far as American studios were concerned girls didn't go to the movies.

As a result the film has always had this weird reputation of the last decade as the odd duck  Ghibli film. Its a film that didn't fit anywhere. While OCEAN WAVES is a similar drama, it was made for TV it never had a reputation as a feature film. WHISPER OF THE HEART while largely also a drama does have the sequence with the Cat which instantly made it more salable. ONLY YESTERDAY had none of that and it floudered.

Until Disney, primarily because of John Lassiter who is a friend of Hayao Miyazaki, started the ball rolling there never seemed to be a chance for getting this film released. Hell unless you found a bootleg or an import the film has been unreleased in the US for 25 years. And what's more until GKids took over the Ghibli library of films Disney probably would never have released it. It's a film that in it's way seems to be either cursed or if not that fallen into a crack. Of course I'm sure that even though Disney and GKids were pushing to release it  there were other issues in getting the film released, the film is much better than some other films that have gotten released (The previously mentioned OCEAN WAVES for example).  Its a film that Ghibli fans seemed destined never to see.

And I think that is why in part, some critics have gone over board praising it. I'm sure they like the film but I think it's them trying to make up for lost time and what must be a lost classic because it's from Ghibli and because Isao Takahata whose PRINCES KAGUYA blew their minds just over a year ago. I think they are over doing it but that's my own thing.

But that doesn't matter because now it's here, going into wide release Friday and we can decide for ourselves what sort of a film it is.

For me this is a good film, but nothing quite as classic as some of my fellow writers would have you believe. As I've said this is a good film that doesn't really resonate with me. I don't think its the lost masterpiece many have said, in part because I've never thought it lost. (I wonder what they would have said if they had seen it 15 years ago like myself or 25 years ago like the rest of the world)

Of course you all should decide for yourselves, and you'll be able to when ONLY YESTERDAY begins it's next round of theatrical engagements starting Friday.

Despite my rambling reservations I do highly recommend the film.

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