It's the kind of film you'd immediately forget about if it weren't by Studio Ghibli. (Written and directed by Isao Takahata, not Miyazaki.) It's the kind of low-stakes, quiet film that doesn't add up to much and makes you wonder why they bothered doing it in animation rather than live-action.
Because it's Ghibli, though, you might spend a bit of time wondering if there's something in it you missed. (Maybe, if you admire Ghibli.) It was also Japan's highest-grossing domestic film in 1991, either animated or live-action. That wasn't just Ghibli brand recognition, since the industry was surprised by how many adults of both sexes came to see it.
It's about a woman (Taeko) aged 27, remembering herself aged 10. There's a lot of nostalgia. She's going on a trip to the countryside, which itself is a community that's vanishing into the past. "These days, people leave and go to the cities. There are fewer children around."
Then, on top of that, this film is old enough that its 1991-nostalgia has itself become historical and you could probably get nostalgic for its nostalgia. The music is a big part of that, if you're Japanese. (Tomoko told me.) Old songs, old children's TV theme tunes, etc. Our heroine was born in 1956, so her ten-year-old self is living in a world where the Beatles are visiting Japan, where pineapples are exotic and where it's seen as acceptable for Dad to smoke at the dinner table in front of the children. A goody-two-shoes at school makes a nuisance of herself with a speech beginning "I just read an article on the Vietnam war."
On top of that, ten-year-old Taeko also has a ten-year-old's problems. All her friends go off to the countryside for the holidays, but she doesn't. The boys at school are being dicks because they've discovered that girls have periods. (Taeko hasn't started hers yet, but she's mortified anyway. A friend of hers who has started is much more relaxed.) A few of the children are making stumbling attempts at pseudo-romance, but of course they're rubbish at it. I particularly liked the story of the obnoxious boy who wouldn't shake Taeko's hand, which avoids the cliches and instead goes for something subtler and more relatable, if you think back to being ten.
Taeko's childhood is the most engaging stuff in the film, I think. Her hamming with one line in the school play made me laugh. It can also be startling. Her father's appalling, but that's basically just traditional Japanese gender roles and I never thought he was a bad person. Similarly, there's a scene where Taeko's mother and sister wonder if she's retarded just because she's getting bad maths scores at school. (What's more, that sister even tried to explain division by fractions to Taeko and did it so terribly that it's frustrating to watch. Some things are hard to teach, but that's not one of them.)
All that's from the source manga, which is episodic and gave Takahata a lot of trouble in how to adapt it. He eventually invented the framing story with 27-year-old Taeko. This material is less interesting, to be honest, but still quite interesting in how it meshes and counterpoints the manga stories. Adult Taeko is giving herself that holiday to the countryside that she never got when she was young. She thinks farming is cool. She's unmarried. She meets nice people. There's an inevitability about it, but it's still gentle and well observed.
Is there anything here that says "Ghibli"? Well, it doesn't have Miyazaki's art style. (Takahata draws faces differently and gives 27-year-old Taeko granny-cheeks.) There are occasional fantastical moments, which are lovely and really lift the film even if they're not to be taken literally. To be honest, though, I think the film might have played better if it hadn't been animated. As it is, you're expecting a Ghibli film. Afterwards, you might wonder what the point was. You might have spent the second half wondering when the end would come. Had this been a live-action film, though, you wouldn't have been thinking such thoughts. You'd have just accepted this as a gentle little story about a woman going off to the country and remembering her childhood. There are lots of live-action films like that, but that's not true in animation. That's part of what Ghibli and Takahata were trying to redefine here, I think.
It's nice. That's the main thing I'll remember about it. Nice, with some lovely imagery (especially in the end credits). I think I need to rewatch it to get a better idea of what the film really is.