Studio Ghibli: “Only Yesterday” (1991) and “Kiki’s Delivery Service” (1989)

“…What drives animation is the will of the characters” (Hayao Miyazaki).

Only Yesterday” and “Kiki’s Delivery Service” are two completely different in plot animations, but both were produced about the same time by famous Japanese Studio Ghibli, an animation film studio known worldwide for the quality of their animations. While “Only Yesterday” focuses on grown-up concerns and largely targets teenager/adult audience, “Kiki’s Delivery Service” is a completely child-friendly movie, which also has important messages to deliver.


Only Yesterday (1991)

Only Yesterday” has a plot filled with highly emotional undercurrents and intelligence: a 27 years old unmarried woman, Taeko, from Tokyo, visits countryside while reminiscing over her childhood of when she was a shy and creative fifth grader at school. Through her nostalgia, we get to learn about many situations which have had the biggest impact on her up until her present life, and get to understand her past choices, hopes and regrets. Directed by Isao Takahata (“The Tale of the Princess Kaguya” (2013) and “Grave of the Fireflies” (1988)), “Only Yesterday” is a beautiful animation which touches upon such often overlooked in films/animations topics as the “grip” of persistent childhood memories and their traumatic or positive impact on one’s later life and development, the benefit of re-discovering oneself in a different setting, the importance of staying true to oneself no matter the circumstances, and the imperative of letting go and forgiving “one’s former self”, as well as people from one’s past, to be able to carry on and lead a happy, fulfilled life. Knowing its overnight success in Japan and its worldwide acclaim, it is unbelievable to think that it took so long for this film to be finally dubbed in English and released in an English-speaking country, but, it is true that “Only Yesterday” premiered in North America only last year (it was also briefly shown in selective US cinemas in 2006 and 2012). Partly based on manga by Hotaru Okamoto and Yuuko Tone, “Only Yesterday” switches back and forth from the years 1966 and 1982, showing Taeko in school as a fifth grader, and, then, as an adult office worker in Tokyo who decides to take a “memory” trip to a countryside. 

Taeko’s childhood memories include unfair school regulations, “crushes” on boys, puberty concerns, growing up in the shadow of her sisters, and the tasting of her first ever pineapple, among others. Taeko’s present life is more subdued, and her present mature self reflects on her often selfish and inconsiderate behaviour as a youngster as she tastes a life away from town and gets to know agriculture practices in a secluded country.

The animation is about many things, but, probably, nothing stands out as strongly as the issue of the pressure to conform and be regarded as “normal” in a society. In her childhood, Taeko’s problems with maths were a source of gossip for her family who hinted to her that she might not have been “normal”, and her early aspirations to become an actress was dismissed as being “unnatural” (not serious) and maybe abnormal by her father. As an adult, Taeko also feels that she has to justify her unmarried status to the people around her. As the pressure to conform in a society is so strong, free-spirited, curious and emotionally fragile children like Taeko may be very misunderstood. In one scene in the film, young Taeko would like to go out with her family, but gives external signals that she does not. Her family does not to let her know that they understand what her true feelings are, and that only her pride and the incident before prevents her from going out. These instances of misunderstanding in her childhood make it even more important for Taeko as an adult to find a person who would really understand what she thinks and feels, and, eventually, she finds that person in Toshio, with whom she shares mutual understanding and with whom she can talk freely.

Another important theme of this animation is how seemingly mundane and unimportant events happening, simple actions done or careless words spoken in one’s childhood can have a dramatic emotional impact on one’s later adult life and the development of personality, such as the development of shyness, insecurity or the fear of forming personal relationships. In other words, these things could “plant a seed” inside, which may be always felt. Adult Taeko recalls one incident when her father slapped her for the first time when she was young, and she also remembers a boy in school shaking his hands with everyone, but her. The feelings of guilt are ever present in adult Taeko, and she tries to make sense of these past situations. The film’s solution to this is simple: to forgive one’s past self, loving her as she was then, and never regret anything, i.e. to make peace with the past and one’s former self. Traumatic events can have powerful consequences, but frivolous things remembered from childhood can also be a source of ever-lasting optimism and strength. For example, adult Taeko recalls her favourite children’s TV show “Hyokkori Pumpkin Island”, and how, despite all the sad moments in her childhood, this show and its upbeat songs always managed to bring a smile to her face.

It will be wrong to assume that this film is void of true romance and love emotions. There is one key scene in the film which is so masterfully thought-out and presented, it may be considered as one of the most touchingly realistic romantic scenes in animation. Taeko finds out that a boy Hirota likes her. Taeko walks home from a game, where Hirota was a star. As she walks, Taeko realises that Hirota is standing just a few hundred feet away in front of her. Both freeze and do not know what to do, while complete silence fills the screen, and the audience could feel the innocent chemistry between the two, as they try to figure out each other’s thoughts. Then, when Taeko just prepares to turn away from Hirota and walk away, Hirota asks if she prefers rainy, cloudy, or sunny days. “Cloudy”, says Taeko. “Me too!”, says Hirota. The situation is completely ridiculous to the outsider, but it is clear that, for these two, their nonsensical dialogue and the whole situation bear special significance.

Despite Takahata’s cinematography being very different from that of Miyazaki, it is not any less beautiful or detailed. From the detailed portrayal of Taeko’s room in Tokyo to the fantastic views of the countryside, Takahata favours simplicity over cramped overwhelming visual palette, and the result is the feeling of originality in presentation, and the emphasis on the story and emotions, rather than the visuals. Moreover, the ending and the final scenes of this animation are probably one of the best ever made. They are heartfelt and deeply-moving with a beautiful soundtrack full of meaning in the background.

Only Yesterday” is a beautifully-drawn animation from a director who knows what to do with the quality material. The film’s slow-pace may not appeal to everyone, but its direct, masterful portrayal of nostalgia and reflection on the past will undoubtedly leave many deeply moved. 9/10

Kiki's Delivery Service (1989) Japan_1

Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989)


Written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki (“My Neighbour Totoro” (1988) and “Spirited Away” (2001)) and based on the novel by Eiko Kadono, “Kiki’s Delivery Service” is a heart-warming animation about a young witch, Kiki, who, together with her loyal and amusing cat, Jiji, travel to a far-away seaside town to undergo her apprenticeship away from her family. While there, Kiki befriends a local woman working in a bakery and starts her own business delivering parcels to deadlines around town.

The film begins with Kiki, a 13 year old witch, preparing to depart from her hometown to any other town “where there is not any other witch yet”, to gain independence as part of the compulsory guideline of becoming a fully-fledged witch. Together with her sarcastic cat, Jiji, she selects a beautiful seaside town with a clock tower; befriends a local baker and a local boy, Tombo, who is fascinated with flying; and sets up her own delivery service while utilising her only special skill for the moment: the ability to fly on a broomstick. In fact, here we can clearly see Miyazaki’s personal interest in flying objects (see “The Wind Rises” (2014)), because a lot of attention is paid to Tombo’s self-made flying device.

One of the strongest points of this animation is the theme of female independence played out in a friendship-making and adventure-having story setting. Cultivating one’s ambition and never giving up on one’s dreams are important messages here. In fact, Miyazaki himself said that this film “portrays the gulf between independence and reliance in teenage Japanese girls”. The great thing about Kiki as a character here is that she is portrayed as being so ordinary, vulnerable and imperfect (full of insecurities). She does not have any other witch/special skill apart from flying, but her optimism for the future and her enthusiasm for everything around her are intoxicating, and she is soon able to put that skill into use by setting up a delivery business. It must be scary for any young girl to go to a foreign city full of strangers while maybe also being stigmatised, because she is a bit different from anyone else. However, Kiki in this film is friendly and optimistic, and even when she gets depressed and sick, there are always friends there to help her.

A town chosen by Kiki for her apprenticeship is almost like a stand-alone character in the film. There are plenty of visually-gorgeous shots of the seaside town with its memorable clock tower, medieval-looking cobbled streets and independent shops, providing for a satisfying visual experience. Miyazaki’s renowned attention to detail ensures that the audience grasps the sheer beauty of the town’s architecture and sees every corner of this amazing city inspired by Stockholm.

However, one of the problems with this film is that, even though the book it is based on must be fascinating, when translated to the screen, the plot may feel very underwhelming at times. There is not one plot twist or major event in the film, maybe apart from the accident happening towards the end of the movie, which distinguishes itself and makes the film memorable. Simply, Kiki adjusts to her new life in the new city; delivers parcels around town; is a guest to some strange and fascinating hosts (a laSpirited Away”); and gets lost in a forest. There is also no tangible antagonistic force in the story which could have made the film more compelling, and, in this way, it is very similar to Miyazaki’s previous animation “My Neighbour Totoro”. Kiki’s “adversaries” in the film are bad weather: rain and strong wind (as she flies on her broom), time pressure (as she tries to deliver her parcels on time) and her illness (she gets a cold once). Towards the end of the film, Kiki somehow loses her witch powers and becomes depressed, but there is no clear, logical and satisfying explanation given as to why this happened, apart from her possible lack of confidence. Moreover, it is not overtly clear that the ending is really “happy” as it was so rushed. In the Japanese version of the animation, Jiji, the cat, never regains his human voice which he has lost (the film points out that Kiki has become too mature to understand him), and one can only guess that Kiki resumes her ability to fly completely because she pens a message to her parents mentioning her delivery service.

Overall, “Kiki’s Delivery Service” is an entertaining watch with stunning visuals and the important message for everyone to stay true to who they are, gain independence early on, try new things and explore. The animation may be uneven in plot, lack the counter-force or antagonists, and there is a noticeable shortage of a variety of magic and surprising moments to make it even more thought-provoking, but, nevertheless, there is certain charm in its simplicity and naiveté. This film is recommended for those who have also enjoyed “My Neighbour Totoro”, or for those who look for visually-stunning “adventure” animations with important life lessons. 7/10

21 thoughts on “Studio Ghibli: “Only Yesterday” (1991) and “Kiki’s Delivery Service” (1989)

  1. I’ve seen Kiki’s delivery service. Thought it was cute but never read the book. My friend did music for an animated short film sometime ago, so she was able to invite me as her guest to go to Dreamworks to view a list of films that had been considered for the Academy awards and other programs. It was pretty cool to see some that had not made the cut, but were still very good. I don’t recall if this was one of the contenders or if it was at a film festival some time ago. All I remember was getting to view it. Some of the animated works are most interesting.

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    1. That must have been a pretty exciting experience! I think that Kiki is now often overlooked, and unjustly so. The reason I do these posts is also to encourage more people to see some of more “forgotten” films/animations. Kiki has a charm and simplicity about it, and I actually like it more than My Neighbour Totoro, though both are similar in that kids of very young age can see them.

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      1. At the Dreamworks showing, we were primarily viewing shorts, which are films under 30 minutes and we were discussing how we could get them into mainstream theaters before the main feature film like they used to when I was a kid. Animated films seem to make the festival circuit but the average movie goer never gets to see these and there’s some amazing stuff out there.

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        1. I am sure there is great stuff out there. There is nothing wrong with animations being that short, and it pains me to think that some great animations of short lengths are unjustly bypassed and never get to see their large audience because of their length.

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    1. Yeah, I found “Only Yesterday” very emotional. The visuals were simple, but detailed; and even when the plot got extra slow, I got so much into the character and her mind, I barely noticed it. If you see it, it will be interesting to hear your thoughts.

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  2. I’m a fan of Studio Ghibli, but I haven’t seen “Only Yesterday”, but maybe I should one of these days. I have seen “Kiki’s Delivery Service” which is one of my favorites from them. Great review, by the way.

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  3. I really love Studio Ghibli movies. It’s a great escapism for any mood that may have gotten dampened by reality and the music in each film is so uplifting. I love hearing a few of my favourite picks I have collected in my playlist. It’s great to see you write about these two movies as they can get brushed past the other popular ones.

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    1. Yeah, I try to bring attention to – maybe – lesser known animations/films. I mean, everyone is familiar and usually totally in love with “Spirited Away”, but they may not be too familiar with “Kiki” and there are also things to admire here. Thank you for your comments, appreciate it a lot.

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      1. I try to do the same on my site because there are some wonderful rare gem of a movie that deserve to be recognised. I love the tale of princess Kaguya which I watched last year. It’s quite a different style to their usual animated techniques but it’s charming in the same manner.

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