Scenes I Go Back To: Only Yesterday

It’s a beautiful, even haunting film, and its closing credits sequence is especially powerful.

Earlier this summer, I had the great privilege of speaking at the Flickerings Film Festival. Flickerings is part of the Cornerstone Festival, an arts festival that I attended many times throughout my college and post-college years. As such, Cornerstone holds a very special place in my heart, and so I was very excited, and nervous, to return to the festival after a long break.

While I had a wonderful experience — if nothing else, the weather this year was the greatest Cornerstone weather I’d ever experienced — it was also strangely bittersweet, fraught with nostalgia and a touch of melancholy. There were many familiar sights, sounds, and smells, but there were many different things this year as well.

Perhaps the biggest difference was who I attended the festival with. In years past, there was a core group of friends with whom I made the journey to Bushnell. We’ve all since gone our separate ways due to jobs, school, and family, and so they were nowhere to be found. Instead, my wife was there with me. It was her first trip to Bushnell, and so it was interesting to see the festival for the first time again, through her eyes.

All in all, the nostalgia ran rampant throughout the week for the festivals of yore, even as my wife’s presence was a constant reminder that it wasn’t just the festival that had changed; I had changed considerably as well. Indeed, one night, that strange conflict within me — between the thoughts of what Cornerstone used to mean, and what it now means — kept me tossing and turning into the wee hours of the morning.

So what does all of this have to do with Isao Takahata’s Only Yesterday? The “conflict” between youthful nostalgia and growing up, attempting to reconcile your past and present selves, the power that childhood memories can hold over you as an adult, recognizing the beauty of yesterday without getting trapped in said memories, pining for a simpler time while trying to deal with the complexities of your life as it is — all of these are themes that run throughout Takahata’s film. Much of the movie is spent with the protagonist — a woman in her late twenties — remembering her life as a fifth grader and attempting to move on to the next stage of her life even as she constantly looks back on the girl that she used to be.

Only Yesterday was one of the last films screened at Flickerings, and it provided the perfect elegiac note on which to end my Cornerstone 2007 experience. It’s a beautiful, even haunting film, and its closing credits sequence is especially powerful. Indeed, I felt rather awkward getting up to talk about the film afterwards, as this sequence had left me more than a little teary-eyed. In it, the woman finally gets that which she’s been looking for throughout the entire film and has a reconciliation — and farewell — of sorts with her fifth-grade self, which is done here in a truly affecting and heartwarming manner. (Just don’t let the Japanese cover of “The Rose” throw you.)

Sadly, there are no plans to release Only Yesterday here in the States along with the rest of the Studio Ghibli discs. So if you want to see it, your only hope is to track down an import copy — I own the Region 3 Hong Kong release myself — or hope someone like Mike Hertenstein programs it as part of a film festival near you.

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