Only Yesterday (Memories Come Tumbling Down)

A carefully-wrought, subtle drama from Studio Ghibli's other great maestro Isao Takahata. It reminded me a bit of George Eliot's The Mill on the Floss, in that the depiction of the protagonist's childhood puts her adult character in perspective, although the connections are elliptical and sometimes mysterious. Nevertheless a picture emerges of a spirited young girl who is overlooked, insulted and on one occasion straight-up abused by her family – not out of spite or ill-will, but because her parents are tired and confused and don't have the emotional resources to support their youngest child. The result is an outwardly successful young woman with a job in Tokyo who feels like a ghost.

The solution to Taeko's alienation is a holiday to the countryside, where she joins the villagers in their back-breaking agricultural work. The family relationships she discovers there go some way towards mending the traumas buried in her past. The contrast between town and country is a well-worn trope, but the most impressive thing about the film is that it always endeavours to strike a balance between idealism and realism. An example is the organic farmer lecturing on the importance of respecting nature, but also admitting to using weedkiller because there just isn’t enough agricultural labour in modern times to pull the weeds out by hand.

Another example comes at the end when the possibility is raised of Taeko giving up life in the city and finding romance in the countryside. She treats this as a ridiculous suggestion and describes it as something out of a film. The irony, of course, is that this is a film, and in the final moments she does turn back. But this surrender is presented as a fantasy – it's part of the credits sequence where the music swells and the ghosts of the past appear to guide Taeko to happiness. It's where the film abandons verisimilitude and turns overtly film-like, and the balance tips into unadulterated romanticism. It feels like something that happens after the story has ended and Taeko goes back to Tokyo. I suspect Takahata wanted to give his audience a reward for persevering with the difficult work of a woman coming to terms with her past. But that reward is offered grudgingly, presented as a flight of fancy – almost an afterthought. As Taeko says, it's something that happens in films but is impossible in real life.