Only Yesterday, the World's Best Commercials, and something about shorts

It was bound to happen.

I've genuinely enjoyed every film we've programmed at Carbon Arc since I started working with the independent cinema in the summer of 2015. But I knew at some point we'd bring something in that I wouldn't especially like. That happened on Friday with Only Yesterday.

 
 

The film, long known as the "lost" Isao Takahata Studio Ghibli anime, was never released in North America when it first came out in 1991. That despite its huge success in Japan and various releases around the globe since.

The film is a pastoral drama about Taeko, a 27-year-old woman in early '80s Tokyo, who finds happiness by going to work in safflower fields with extended family. As she travels by train to the countryside she finds herself reminiscing about being a 10-year-old in school, struggling with math but loving the school play, learning about menstruation and hating her sister's cruelty.

There is a lot to enjoy here, in the backgrounds that look like watercolours and the humour that comes from the young Taeko's crush on a boy. There's also the well-observed cultural details in the behaviour, clothes, and details of 1960s Tokyo. My favourite scene was when Taeko first eats a pineapple.

But mostly, to me it felt like a Japanese adaptation of a Judy Blume novel. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but when Only Yesterday wasn't funny I found it alternately banal and precious. It also takes some very strange detours, at one point becoming a propaganda film for Japanese agriculture and rural tourism.

Overall, I thought it was a bit of a slog, lacking in genuine drama. That it ends with a syrupy Japanese cover of Bette Midler's The Rose should give you all the information you need on the film's earnestness.

 
 

I saw the Japanese version subtitled in English. Interestingly, one of the Carbon Arc staffers who saw the English dubbed version said it had quite a different tone, harsher in some respects but also slower. And no corresponding English version of The Rose at the end.

We didn't fill the house on either the 7pm or the 9:30pm screenings on Friday, which surprised us given the sell-out popularity of the last Studio Ghibli film we programmed, When Marnie Was There. It was a cold, rainy night, which could have had something to do with it. It also could be that the hardcore anime fans would have already seen the film online or in some other format, given it's been in circulation since 1991.

The overall reaction to the film from audiences was positive, more so than my impression.

 
This contraption can be seen in one of the "World's Best" commercials

This contraption can be seen in one of the "World's Best" commercials

 

On Saturday we screened the Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity, otherwise known as The World's Best Commercials. I was looking forward to this program, and so were many others based on the big crowd it drew.  Say what you will about advertising, at this level they're basically large- budget short films, offering sophisticated storytelling.

Typically, I was a sucker for the ones featuring dogs: The Geico ad where the family freeze as the dog climbs up onto the table to eat all their food, and especially the organ donor ad, with the dog that sits outside the hospital waiting for her owner. There were a number of others that were poignant and beautiful. I especially liked the Greenpeace ad urging Lego to divest from associations with Shell oil.

As I've mentioned before, part of my task here as Writer-in-Residence is to write a script for a short film. Anticipating the World's Best Commercials, I hoped something would inspire me. But I already have an idea.

Years ago I wrote a script for a graphic novel. My plan was to collaborate with an artist to bring it to life. I came close to doing that, twice working with artists to create a look for the book, but it never quite happened. A friend suggested I take a portion of the story and turn it into an animated short. That's the new plan.

The story is called A Year in Baghdad, and it's an autobiographical tale of the year my parents and I lived in Iraq when I was a child. Through interviews with my parents, some of their friends, and my own memories, I recount our experience of being dropped into Baghdad in 1979, the year Saddam Hussain came to power.

 
Baghdad, Iraq

Baghdad, Iraq

 

The graphic novel was intended to go into a lot of detail about our lives there, but I think the animated short would focus on our last few weeks in the country when we were evacuated at the start of the Iran-Iraq War.

Now comes the task of boiling down my story to something that would work as an animated short. More on that soon.

 
Pablo Larraín's The Club

Pablo Larraín's The Club

 

Next Friday at Carbon Arc: A Chilean film, The Club. Hope to see you then!