Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Only Yesterday

Last week I watched the fine 1991 Japanese anime drama Only Yesterday (Japanese title: Omoide Poro Poro, literally "memories of falling teardrops") written and directed by Isao Takahata and produced by Studio Ghibli. The film shows how Taeko, an inhibited 27-year-old single woman, overcomes the fears and pressures that had stunted her earlier life and had brought her to an unfulfilling career in a Tokyo office.

The film shifts between scenes with the adult Takeo and scenes with her fifth-grade self. Takahata created a framing story about the adult Takeo, who takes a break from her city life by spending her ten days of yearly vacation working on a relative's safflower farm. During this vacation she is puzzled to find herself continually preoccupied with memories of her fifth-grade self. The heart of the film is a lengthy series of flashbacks wherein Takeo reminisces about her struggles as a fifth grader and tries to make sense of how this crucial period prior to puberty influenced her subsequent choices and outlook on life. She remembers her earlier self, the youngest of three daughters, as an impulsive child vying in vain for parental affection and encouragement. She remembers the shame of her weak math skills. She remembers the awkwardness of her first crush. She remembers her fear and embarrassment about the impending changes menstruation would bring. She remembers the pain of being rebuffed by a poor boy she wished to befriend. And as she wrestles with these memories, she comes to understand how childhood fears and disappointments caused her to close off her heart. At the very end of the film, even as the columns of credits in Japanese are appearing on the side of the screen, Takeo heeds the urgings of her imagined fifth-grade self and, fortified by the love of an amiable young farmer, finds the courage to pursue her own happiness.

As I am susceptible to the charming, though unreliable, notion that a deep investigation of the past can lead to insights in the present, it is small wonder that I was captivated by the film. I am the kind of person, in my stronger moments a shrewd amateur historian and in my weaker moments a nostalgic sap, who often views the past as the wellspring of truth and the present as merely a froth of consequences and accidents. I am the kind of person who delights in histories that give a glimpse of the daily life in past ages, such as the popular 1931 book by Frederick Lewis Allen (1890-1954), Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the 1920's. (I am intrigued that the book and the anime film share the same name.  What should I make of this?)  Here is how Allen begins his book.

 If time were suddenly to turn back to the earliest days of the Postwar Decade, and you were to look about you, what would seem strange to you? Since 1919 the circumstances of American life have been transformed--yes, but exactly how?

Let us refresh our memories by following a moderately well-to-do young couple of Cleveland or Boston or Seattle or Baltimore—it hardly matters which—through the routine of an ordinary day in May, 1919. (I select that particular date, six months after the Armistice of 1918, because by then the United States had largely succeeded in turning from the ways of war to those of peace, yet the profound alterations wrought by the Post-war Decade had hardly begun to take place.) There is no better way of suggesting what the passage of a few years has done to change you and me and the environment in which we live.

From the appearance of Mr. Smith as he comes to the breakfast table on this May morning in 1919, you would hardly know that you are not in the nineteen-thirties (though you might, perhaps, be struck by the narrowness of his trousers). The movement of men's fashions is glacial. It is different, however, with Mrs. Smith.

She comes to breakfast in a suit, the skirt of which—rather tight at the ankles—hangs just six inches from the ground. She has read in Vogue the alarming news that skirts may become even shorter, and that "not since the days of the Bourbons has the woman of fashion been visible so far above the ankle"; but six inches is still the orthodox clearance. She wears low shoes now, for spring has come; but all last winter she protected her ankles either with spats or with high laced "walking-boots," or with high patent-leather shoes with contrasting buckskin tops. Her stockings are black (or tan, perhaps, if she wears tan shoes); the idea of flesh-colored stockings would appall her. A few minutes ago Mrs. Smith was surrounding herself with an "envelope chemise" and a petticoat; and from the thick ruffles on her undergarments it was apparent that she was not disposed to make herself more boyish in form than ample nature intended.

My mooning over bygone days is a harmless diversion, although it probably indicates a certain slackness of character. However, the obsessive introspection that Taeko subjected herself to in the film is a serious and potentially dangerous undertaking. Old memories retain great power. One can easily be weighed down by the pain of past regrets, the sadness of lost opportunities, and the bitterness of old grudges. As the adult Taeko is chided by one of her older sisters for mentioned a grievance from her school days: " What a burden your past must be if you're still holding a grudge like that!"

I made myself very miserable last week by imitating Taeko's introspection. In my case, I didn't need to go back to my childhood memories, which are generally pleasant. It was my college days that burdened me. What happened to me in college? What was it, I wondered, that set me on a course to spend the next forty years of my life in one corporate bureaucracy after another? Surely, this life I have led had nothing to do with my boyhood dreams!

I puzzled over these questions for hours last week but came to no satisfying understanding concerning what fears and pressures had shaped my college self. Even worse, now I was worried that I had no better understanding about what fears and pressures were currently shaping my present self, an older man on the brink of retirement. Taeko's introspection freed her to pursue her own true happiness; all that my introspection gave me was headaches and sleepless nights. Finally, I gave it all up as hopeless.

This only positive outcome of dredging up my past was that I recalled the things that had made me especially happy and hopeful as a young undergraduate trudging through my endless technical courses: Christianity, creative writing, and piano playing. Christianity has been an enduring consolation to me throughout my life. This humble blog and a thin collection of short stories published for the Kindle (yielding a grand total of one sale since last October) are ways that I have regained my interest in writing during the past few years. To revive my piano playing after decades of musical abstinence, yesterday I downloaded sheet music for a half dozen ragtime pieces, went down to my sons' ancient upright piano stored in the basement, and commenced to whale away at the first part of Scott Joplin's The Entertainer. My playing is atrocious – if I try to play up to tempo, the tune gets mangled beyond recognition – but I find encouragement in detecting tiny improvements with each hour of practice.

Proverbs 20:24  Man's goings are of the LORD; how can a man then understand his own way?

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