Two Conceptions of Memory in Only Yesterday

Curator's Note

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. 

Thanks for your comment Jayson, and for organising this theme week! 

Takahata's films have, to me a demonstrably different feel to them than the rest of the Ghibli output. Miyazaki has a fairly consistent style which the likes of Yonabashi, Goro Miyazaki, and Kondo have broadly emulated. I imagine this is in part due to Miyazaki often having input (script or otherwise) and also a decision by Toshio Suzuki to curate a 'Ghibli look' that corresponds to the Studio's most financially successful films (Spirited AwayHowl's Moving CastlePonyo). Takahata's style varies quite drastically throughout his career with only Pom Poko really adhering to the Ghibli look. Perhaps we could say that Takahata has an affinity with water-colours and ink painting which accounts for his use of white/empty space in My Neighbors the YamadasThe Tale of Princess Kaguya, the flashbacks in Only Yesterday, and also the softer tones of Grave of the Fireflies. I would suggest also that these aesthetics work with the Buddhist approach suggested in the original post. We might see the sparse an abstract lines as containers of mu/nothingness that the viewer fills with meaning. In this sense the 'less-formed' animation of Taeko's memories are drawn in a style that evokes their ephemeral nature and also a deeply personal affect activated by the meaning imbued in them by the viewer (or what we imagine them to mean to Taeko). 

Another thing the strikes me is chronological procession of Taeko's flashbacks. Memory rarely runs in a linear fashion for very long, although perhaps the Deleuze/Bergson framework can help here. If Taeko is recollecting this particular stage of her childhood, the chronological progression of flashbacks marking the movement of the memory from distant past to present moment. Following this notion, perhaps it is not the particular content of the memories which are important for informing Taeko's decision, but the act of remembering itself; the memory of being ten rather the memory of events experienced at that age.    


I am really taken by your application of mu to Takahata's tendency towars a less defined line.  Memorial images are always our own subjective reassemblage of a previous perception, so the - as you say - empherality of the flashback's style in contrast to the present-day scenes provides a sense that not only are we given room to input our personal interpretation, but that we are seeing Taeko's personal, eidetic interpretation of these moments.  As you point out, Takahata's career - even more than Miyazaki's - has provided far more "nothingness," openness, or ambiguity for the viewer (and characters) to question and imbue with meaning.  He's always been more experimental than his contemporaries at Ghibli.  Even in a film like Pom Poko where he is, as you say, adhering closer to Miyazaki's template, he includes a scene depicting the characters in 8-byte video game-esque graphics.  And that's even beyond how he emphasizes the plasmaticity of animation through the shape-changing tanuki.  

Thank you again for the thoughtful post and deeply considered response, George!  

The idea that sparse/abstract lines contain nothingness that the viewer then fills is interesting.  Continuing to think about Takahata's influence, I wonder what you make of Ocean Waves?  It has many sequences where there is a concretized white frame around a rectangular image at the center of the screen.  The technique could be seen as a mark of Takahata's influence, but Takahata's blank spaces are much more formless than that.

That's a great connection to make, Amanda!  I had not considered Takahata's influence on the way flashbacks are depicted in Ocean Waves when I first watched it, but I do remember being struck by that stylistic choice.  The reduced aspect ratio and white borders of those sequences seemed very reminiscent of a Polaroid picture to me.  Like you say, that presentation is far more rigid and defined than Takahata's blank spaces.  If they are intended to resemble Polaroids, then that difference could be read as one between the capturing of a frozen moment within a photograph and the amorphous, ever-shifting details of a memory.   

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