“To be a butterfly the caterpillar has to become a chrysalis first even if it never for a moment wanted to become one.”
Only Yesterday is a 1991 anime film from Studio Ghibli that is just now being released in North America as a 25th Anniversary Edition. It is a coming of age story that combines the story of Taeko as a 27 year old on a trip to the countryside with the story of her “fifth grade self along for the trip.” As an adult she relishes the trip to the country, using her vacation from her Tokyo job to work in the fields with relatives. But she also has vivid memories of herself as a child learning about menstruation in school and being embarrassed when boys thought she might be on her period. The awkwardness of her young self really hasn’t gone away even though she seems more in charge of her life. But a developing relationship with a local young man sends her back in her memories as she tries to sort out the empty places in her life.
Like many Studio Ghibli films, this may have entertainment value for children, but it is really more geared to adults. Taeko senses that she is at a point in her life that, although she is not unhappy, she lacks fulfillment. She may be physically grown up, but she still needs an emotional growth spurt to be truly mature. Part of the work she does in the country is harvesting safflowers, a yellow flower that is used to make red dye for rouge. That points to the kind of unexpected transitions that are found in nature and in our lives.
I appreciate coming of age stories that are not about sexual awakenings of adolescents, but rather about the internal maturity of becoming an adult—a process that happens over and over throughout our lives. Both the child Taeko and the adult Taeko are in the midst of such transitions. For the child, the first thoughts of romance and the exasperation of boys have her unsettled. For the adult, not having found a place in the world where she truly feels happy also creates that off-balance feeling. This is not a bemoaning of losing one’s childhood, but rather a celebration of the various stages of life that opens for us as we grow. The fifth grade Taeko is always with the adult Taeko, and that just makes her more complete. As she begins to move into yet a new transformation—a new chrysalis stage—she may not know what she will become, but it is sure to be an exciting new life.
Photos courtesy OnlyYesterdayFilm.com