In Isao Takahata's Only Yesterday (1991), 27-year-old Taeko takes a Summer break from Tokyo life to visit relatives in Yamagata Prefecture. Whilst romance buds with local boy Toshio over the course of the trip, Taeko experiences increasingly frequent feelings of nostalgia and memories of her early adolescence. These dovetailing timelines ultimately coalesce at the film’s emotional climax. As shown in the clip accompanying this post, Taeko is returning to Tokyo on the train, leaving behind Toshio and the chance of a more nourishing life in the countryside. Scored by an emotive cover of ‘The Rose’, the scene shows 10-year-old Taeko and her classmates emerging into the ‘present’ narrative and (unseen, except by the viewer) coaxing Taeko off the train and back to Toshio.
This gentle eruption of past into present, or bunching of memory to inform choices in the here-and-now, evokes several theories of the operation of memory. My intention with this post is to offer two possible pathways for understanding the scene.
Firstly, I defer to Gilles Deleuze’s fourth commentary on Henri Bergson in Cinema II (1985), which outlines memory as a series of sheets which one might jump to in order to recollect an image of the past (2014: 104). These sheets coexist in the present moment, or to put it another way, what we experience as the present exists in memory as the moment most recently passed. In Only Yesterday, Taeko’s past is brought visibly into the present (or immediate past) by her recollections.
Secondly, consider the concept of the ālaya-consciousness (or storehouse consciousness), as found in Yogacārā Buddhism. The storehouse contains all potentialities (emotions, forms, impulses, etc.) in the form of karmic seeds. These seeds are activated as we experience and interact with the world and return to virtual existence in the storehouse proceeding their ‘use’. At the end of Only Yesterday, the viewer witnesses the operation of Taeko’s ālaya-consciousness in the form of childhood memories. Memories that do not exist purely in a virtual past, but which can activate to create an impulse decision in the present.
Deleuze, Gilles (2014). Cinema II: The Time-Image. Translated by Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta. London: Bloomsbury, 2014.
As someone who is currently working on a dissertation that partially looks at the phenomenology of memory, I really appreciated your post, George. Like you, I found Takahata's rendition of Taeko's past and present colliding in the film's conclusion evocative and resonant. There's a certain structural pleasure in having the two parallel threads of the film (Taeko in the present and Taeko in flashback) merge together.
Which makes me wonder if you have any thoughts regarding the way Takahata differentiates Taeko's memories/flashbacks in the rest of the film? If my own memory serves me, the line and color of the flashback scenes are softer, made to resemble watercolor, and vignetted with white (he uses a similar technique in My Neighbors the Yamadas). My own recollection is that seeing young Taeko (and her friends) rendered in the same "solid" art style as present day Taeko only emphasized what you discuss here, i.e. memories having a tangible impact on the present.
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