‘Only Yesterday’: These animated figures far from cartoons

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“Only Yesterday” | Gkids

Think “coming-of-age movie” and certain things spring to mind.

A young John Cusack, maybe? The Brat Pack in “The Breakfast Club?” Sorry, showing my age. But typically, there is some sort of mildly raunchy comedy mixed with sex among the minor players while the virginal female protagonist finds love. It’s a fractured fairy tale, almost.

“Only Yesterday” isn’t like that.

Isao Takahata’s film, made for the famed animation house Studio Ghibli and based on a manga, is so much more. Originally released in 1991, it has taken 25 years to arrive here (it did play once on Turner Classic Movies). It is well worth the wait.

The movie tells the story of Taeko Okajima (voice of Daisy Ridley in the dubbed version). She’s 27 and lives alone in Tokyo; as the film begins, in 1982, her boss is approving her 10-day vacation. Taeko is heading to the countryside, and the trip spawns a lot of memories.

Most of them revolve around her fifth-grade year, in 1966. The Beatles toured Japan, so mop-top groups are popping up, providing her older sisters’ lives with a soundtrack (she wouldn’t get into music until later). 

Back in 1982, Takeo boards a train for the journey, and Takahata jumps back and forth between Taeko’s childhood and her present as she remembers various moments in her life. Not all are pleasant. Some are embarrassing. Some are painful. Some are joyous. All are crucial to her current life.

When she arrives in the countryside, she’s met at the train station by Toshio (Dev Patel), a young farmer. She’s not really there for a vacation — she is going to help her brother-in-law’s older brother pick safflowers for harvest. Toshio is charming, and the two talk easily.

The animation isn’t showy, but it’s beautiful, providing clear delineations between Taeko’s past and present. The attention to detail is fantastic. But the story is what sets the film apart. Though it’s animated, the pace is patient. There is real character development (there’s mostly character development, in fact). Taeko mines the past in great, sometimes uncomfortable detail to help shape her future.

We don’t expect this from cartoons. Or from coming-of-age films. “Only Yesterday” is a mature work of art, no matter what the genre, no matter what the format, no matter what.

★★★1⁄2

GKids presents a film written and directed by Isao Takahata. Running time: 118 minutes. Rated PG (for thematic elements, some rude behavior and smoking). Opens Friday at the Music Box Theatre.

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