The iconic Japanese animation house Studio Ghibli may be best known for Hayao Miyazaki’s work, but some of the studio’s most beloved movies came from his co-founder, Isao Takahata. Takahata is responsible for acclaimed animated films like The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, which earned a 2014 Oscar nomination for best animated film, and Grave of the Fireflies, the heartbreaking 1988 tale about two young siblings struggling to survive in post-World War II Japan. Most of Studio Ghibli’s films — including Takahata’s work — have made their way to the States, but there’s one that never saw a U.S. release. (It aired once on Turner Classic Movies, and that’s it.) Now, 25 years after it first hit theaters overseas, Takahata’s forgotten masterpiece Only Yesterday is finally making its stateside debut. And it’s long overdue.
The English-dubbed version recruits Daisy Ridley (of recent Star Wars: The Force Awakens fame, adopting an American accent) to voice its adult heroine, the 27-year-old Taeko Okajima. Unmarried and working an office job in Tokyo in 1982, she decides to leave big city life behind to visit her relatives in the country. As she travels by train, she’s struck by vivid flashbacks to her fifth-grade self in the 1960s, reflecting on burgeoning crushes, first periods, and struggles with fractions. The rest of the film alternates between Taeko’s time in the countryside — where she meets the young farmer Toshio (voiced by Dev Patel) — and her memories, as she starts to wonder what it means to grow up.
Takahata frequently experimented with animation style — compare the sparse design of the 1999 comedy My Neighbors the Yamadas with the lush detail of Grave of the Fireflies — and Only Yesterday is no exception. The 1982 country landscapes are intricate and gorgeous, while the minimalist flashback scenes use pastels and extensive white space, like a memory that’s a bit fuzzy around the edges.
But as gorgeous and creative as Only Yesterday is, it isn’t hard to figure out why it had such a long path to American distribution. The narrative is largely plotless, and it functions more as a melancholy meditation on coming of age. Only Yesterday is hardly the only adult-oriented animated film, but its subject matter can be startlingly mature: Disney distributed many of Studio Ghibli’s greatest hits, but Only Yesterday has some decidedly un-Disney moments, as Taeko recalls being slapped by her father and learning about menstruation for the first time. (GKIDS is distributing Only Yesterday.) But it’s that refusal to shy away from big themes that makes this such a rare and powerful film. Only Yesterday may have been released in 1991 and take place in 1982 and 1966, but Taeko’s reflection on girlhood is truly timeless. A