Some of my loved ones and friends don’t use social media at all. They have no FOMO nor a desire to post the minutia of their everyday lives, and rarely feel the need to see how their connections are doing. I sometimes envy them. Facebook and Instagram are wonderful ways of keeping up with people, but as we know, these platforms are used, often unintentionally, to show the world only the best sides of ourselves. The mistakes, the nastiness, the flaws—these are hidden away from prying eyes, and all that’s left are pretty families, perfect even in their imperfections!
In 1982, Facebook was 21 years away from its inception. Widespread home use of the Internet was more than a decade off, and we were more likely to use a payphone than a personal computer. Just as today, we still hid our family secrets, but we all knew they existed; the immense pressure of a digital existence didn’t haunt our lives. This is the world of Taeko Okajima, the 27-year-old protagonist of the notalgia trip that is Only Yesterday. For years lacking a North American release, it became widely available in 2016 through GKIDS. Though that theatrical release came 34 years after the film’s setting, Only Yesterday feels indeed like its title, a movie that reminds us all of years past, and especially through the rawness of the family it depicts—and the power that family has on us.
As Taeko travels to the countryside on her vacation from the hustle and bustle of Tokyo and office work, she reminisces about the past, particularly about her 10-year-old self. The latter portion of the film drifts from school life to family life. Much younger than her sisters, Taeko struggles with them and at one point, becomes very grumpy about a stand she makes regarding a hand-me-down purse from her sister, Yaeko. There’s such realism in this scene—a ten-year-old’s pride, the older sister’s selfishness, and most striking, whether out of tiredness or with some lesson in mind, in the parents’ in-the-moment decision to not resolve the issue.
It comes to a boil when the four are going to a Chinese restaurant, an uncommon outing for the family. The stubborn Taeko says she won’t go, and despite pauses from both her mother and father, they decide to leave without her. Unable to continue with her bluff, Takeo runs outside to stop the family, forgetting to put on her shoes—it’s this broken rule that breaks her father, who grabs Takeo by the collar and slaps her across the face. Takeo bawls, the women are horrified, and the father is ashamed.
In truth, it wasn’t walking on dirt in socks that led to such a harsh reaction (As Taeko relates the story to her young relative Naoko, her father never hit her before or after that incident)—the punishment was the overflow of stress and fighting sisters and who knows what else. The flow toward that explosive moment could have been abated at multiple points, via a more understanding sister, a mother who decided to listen to her daughter rather than continually emphasize her shortcomings, or a dad who went further than simply looking upon his daughter with compassion. None of the family members take action—they just decide to leave Taeko behind and go eat at the restaurant without her.
But when I watched this scene, I couldn’t point fingers—not at the Okajima family anyway. I only saw myself in their failures. Too often I’m selfish like Yaeko, discouraging like Mrs. Okajima, or lazy like Mr. Okajima. And I’ve already chronicled my lack of patience and self-control—I know how easy it is to let the little things fester until they become an infection, a blowing over that would never have occurred if tended to early and treated properly.
The reality of family is this: It’s not always or even often the beautiful photos on social media; it’s yelling and frustration and most of all, ungrace.
That scene hits me harder now that it would have a decade or two ago, and I wonder if it’s because my vision of family has become skewed. I know that despite growing up with parents that would have been about Taeko’s age in 1982, I’ve lost the authenticity, as it were, of that generation; I’m too far gone in a world of FOMO and YOLO, and maybe tainted by envy and unrealistic expectations. Taeko is not—she doesn’t look back on her family with remorse or hate, as evidenced by her kind words about them and by her now-strong relationships with her sisters.
I want to look at my family now, and my family back then, without the inundation of the world. To look back both with eyes uncovered and with grace. I think that’s how Taeko sees the past and present. I want to be more like that. I believe the late Isao Takahata was trying to tell us we should maybe do the same through Only Yesterday as he grasped with a changing world (though based on an early 1980s manga, the movie was originally released in 1992). Much as how the more whimsical My Neighbors the Yamadas helps us remember grace in a happy way, Only Yesterday encourages us to choose grace even as we remember hurt and pain.
But the choice to “love anyway” isn’t an authentic one should we also forget what happened. Taeko hasn’t forgotten—in fact, she can’t help but remember. Her 10-year-old self is almost truly a specter, haunting her trip but also lying there always in her life, keeping her from moving forward. Her family has inflicted wounds that are not so easily healed. Just like Taeko’s dad, I forget how my actions in the moment may have an impact for decades to come, and while I hope to receive grace from my own children for poor decisions as I give grace to my parents for their mistakes, I have the ability now to stem the tide of stress that leads to those errors. I can choose love and avoid placing Taeko’s burden on my own kids.
There’s a scene later in Only Yesterday where Taeko remembers her struggle with math, particularly in dividing fractions. She can’t just memorize; for Taeko, she must know why and how that concept works, while the rest of her family just expects her to learn and do. In frustration and in response to Yaeko’s proclamation that Taeko’s struggles are abnormal, their mother exclaims, “That child is not normal!”
Taeko is not normal, not by the family or societal definition. We as an audience realize this is something to be celebrated, but the 10-year-old Taeko, who overhears her mother’s words, receives the confirmation that she is abnormal, that she is not right. The pain of those words and the frequent emotional beating she receives from her mom lasts into the present day. Taeko still feels she’s not normal—after all, “normal” 27-year-old women settle down and have families, and despite Taeko telling family that women are more focused on work nowadays, it seems that she still doesn’t even feel okay with that explanation, that she’s trying more to convince she is others.
Taeko’s journey to the countryside to visit relatives, then, becomes a journey toward finding peace with herself. Taeko has been avoiding the pain she’s carried, the expectations she burdens—or perhaps, and probably additionally, she hasn’t understood them. While lying in bed one night, she begins to consider where she’s been and where she now is:
Like it or not, a caterpillar must first live as a chrysalis before becoming a butterfly. Maybe I remember those days because I am again going through a chrysalis stage. Something definitely changed when I started working. At work and at play we girls were livelier and more spirited than guys. It was like we’d finally found our wings. But looking back now, maybe were were just flapping them pointlessly.
When I was in my twenties, I thought I knew everything—almost like a teenager, but with enough experience and money to be dangerous. Taeko, without the outward pride I carried, feels the same way. After all, now an adult, she should know who she is and what she desires. But the truth is—and this goes for myself as well at her age—Taeko isn’t as grown up as she believes she is. She is less like her elementary school friend, the girl of larger stature who has not only had her first period, but maturely dismisses boys’ teasing as childish, and more like the girl she was at that age, too concerned about what others thought, too unwilling to let her own self search, speak, and grow.
The pain of the past, the way her family taught her, and now, her own self, have held Taeko back all these years. And it seems this journey will end realistically, as sorrowful and nostalgic as the beginning and middle parts of it were (spoilers ahead). We as the audience realize, though, that Taeko is growing. She’s dealing with the past—she now has to deal with herself.
But as the credits play, overlayed by the ending theme (“The Rose,” better known to English-speaking audiences through Bette Midler’s version and film), one of anime’s most wondrous scenes plays out. The ten-year-old Taeko, accompanied by dozens of children, watch the 27-year-old Taeko wriggle with discomfort on the train she’s just boarded, and encourage and tug at her as she slowly makes the decision to stop her journey home and return instead to Yamagata, presumably to leave her life in the city, kindle a romance with Toshio (a man that understands her), and most importantly, to move forward in healing.
The lyrics to “The Rose” are so very appropriate:
Some say, “Love, it is a river that drowns the tender reed”
Some say, “Love, it is a razor that leaves your soul to bleed”
Some say, “Love, it is a hunger, an endless aching need”
I say, “Love, it is a flower and you, its only seed”
It’s the heart afraid of breaking that never learns to dance
It’s the dream afraid of waking that never takes the chance
It’s the one who won’t be taking who cannot seem to give
And the soul afraid of dying that never learns to live
When the night has been too lonely and the road has been too long
And you think that love is only for the lucky and the strong
Just remember in the winter, far beneath the bitter snows
Lies the seed that with the sun’s love in the spring becomes the rose
But although the closing is uplifting, it’s also authentic. Taeko’s journey in the film (and in life) has brought her to this moment. The choices she made in the past (or failed to make), the missed opportunities, and most specifically, the challenges from her family have laid her low—she’s the “heart afraid of breaking,” the “dream afraid of waking.” But Taeko has been gifted two things of significance. The first is the trip itself, complete with prodding from Granny that pushes her into crisis and forces her to realize that the train back is symbolic of returning to the existence she’s continued to live, of resuming a life of avoidance.
The second is Taeko herself. In Toshio, she finds a man that meets what she wants, that meets her, who sees her as valuable when she sees weakness, who isn’t just any man who will help her meet societal expectations, but a true partner who will love her and push her to be more of who she is. But further, Taeko makes the decision to leave the train because that’s really who she is—it reflects the strength within. It’s an accepting of her identity, one sometimes forged by and other times pushed away through her family life. But Taeko is resilient, headstrong, and gracious. For all the pain of family, one which she perhaps hasn’t visited deeply until coming to Yamagata, Taeko knows that the impact is powerful is so many ways.
And now, as she accepts it in all its hindrance and encouragement, the binding of family (and all other parts of her youth) has also done this: It has set her free.