Thoughts On: Only Yesterday - Animated Photogénie


Only Yesterday - Animated Photogénie

Thoughts On: Only Yesterday (おもひでぽろぽろ, 1991)

On her visit to work in the countryside, a single career-drive city girl reminisces about her childhood.

Only Yesterday is Studio Ghibli's fifth animated feature - if we include Nausicaä Of The Valley Of The Wind, it is the sixth. This is, however, only the second time Takahata would direct for Ghibli with Grave Of The Fireflies being his first. And it is with Only Yesterday that Takahata indisputably distinguishes himself from Miyazaki through his specific approach to realism. Whilst this is evident in the pacing, character design and with the emphasis on Japanese life in the 60s and 90s, there is greater depth to Takahata's realism than these surface components.

With Only Yesterday, Takahata puts Epstein in an Ozu picture. The Ozu elements are very evident with the slow pacing and silence, and so anyone even slightly familiar with Japanese cinema will make this link. Ozu is then emphasised in the present day sequences with the depiction of rural life and the pre-recorded voice performances. It is generally standard practice in Japan for voices to be recorded after animation. However, instead of having the voices support the animation, Takahata recorded the dialogue for the present day sequences before hand as to bring them to life with the animation. This results in imperfect synchronisation at times, but it allows this film to embrace its Ozu-esque placidity by capturing the life of a voice rather than heightening silence that is later filled.

It is from this quietude that Epstein is projected. In such, there isn't just realism in Only Yesterday that evokes the approach of Ozu, but also poetic realism and impressionism. We see the poetic realism shine through the aesthetics that heighten the real and give it a poetic edge. Sequences that involve looking at nature are then expressive examples of this as nature in this movie isn't inert and still, rather, it exudes life in conjuncture with the poetic philosophies of characters.

Added to this, there is impressionism of two kinds. Not only are there many beautiful moments of animation that bring out the internal feelings of characters (subjective realism manifested materially), but the realist cinematic space is often invaded by internal memories; the past bleeds into the future and often moulds it which manifests an ethereal subjective realism through light surrealism. These two kinds of impressionism work in tandem with the poetic realism in a way that evokes the approaches and ideas of Jean Epstein.

Epstein himself was apart of the first wave of avant-garde artists of the cinema. This wave of filmmakers all emerged around the 1920s and from them came integral theories and movements that still influence cinema to this day. Many will then be able to refer to Soviet Montage and filmmakers such as Kuleshov, Vertov and Eisenstein, German Expressionism, Munau and Lang, Surrealism, Dalí, Buñuel and Dulac and French Impressionism with figures such as Kirsanoff, Gance and Epstein. Many of these filmmakers theorised about films through writing as well as made them. Epstein was apart of those who wrote about cinema and, in doing so, provided one of my favourite piece of film theory: photogénie.

Photogénie, like impressionism, isn't a strict and defining term, rather, it is an abstract implication of a highly subjective approach to filmmaking. However, 'photogénie' directly translates into English as 'photogenic'. As most will know, this describes a person or object that often looks good on film or in pictures. Whilst this is the basis of Epstein's idea of photogénie, it is not a complete description. To Epstein, photogénie didn't just describe what looked good on film, but souls or beings whose moral value was enhanced by the process of filming. This implies that there is more to beautiful images than attraction. There is much more to be said about this subject, but, in short, this theory defies cynical readings of film as voyeurism that often satisfies a 'male gaze'. Whilst such an idea is functional in some regards, it can be overused; there is always a tension between voyeurism (which connotes exploitation, perversion and menace) and photogénie.

In reading the work of Epstein, it is very clear that he is something of a voyeur; he has an almost obsessive passion for the close-up for example. However, he is a voyeur who is interested in stepping inside others to see and feel as they do - and this is a large part of what his cinema is: impressionism. This is why he was so focused on an idea of photogénie as enhancing the moral value of film and cinema. And I think it is safe to assume that Epstein would love Takahata's Only Yesterday.

Epstein often expands time with slow motion, superimposition, long takes and close-ups merging together to create a photogenic symphony of motion. He could not control his actors like Takahata can his characters, however. And this is why I think Epstein would love Only Yesterday. Throughout this film, characters are almost frozen in time and their facial expressions are animated in such a way that we can't help but recognise the mechanics of photogénie manifesting themselves through the musculature and physiognomy of their faces. So, instead of utilising slow motion, Takahata often has the emergence of a smile emphasised with his placid poetic animated realism. And it is from these many moments that there emerges a hint of sentimentality that is quickly overwhelmed by the moral attraction of photogénie. So, in being able to immerse ourselves in the building of smiles and the flushing of cheeks, we then grow to care deeply about characters without intense drama and conflict. And so it is exactly this that lies at the heart of what makes this such a beautiful film and a visual masterpiece.

To keep things brief, seeing Takahata's photogénie combine with a beautiful score and touching story imbued with so many genuine, tiny details is a true pleasure, leaving Only Yesterday an utterly precious Ghibli feature that needs to be seen by all.

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