Self esteem and Studio Ghibli: How Only Yesterday explores low self esteem

After watching Only Yesterday, a film produced by Studio Ghibli and first released in Japan in 1991, I was struck at how closely the film depicted low self esteem and self image.

Protagonist Taeko is at a crossroads in her life. She cannot grow any further working in a lifeless office job.

Memories from her childhood come back to her, and she wants to make a change, but seemingly is struggling with the self belief needed to strike out on her own, and do something she enjoys.

In this case, self esteem and self image have no room to flourish when an individual feels like an outsider, singled out from the peers, and has no emotional support in divisive and crucial moments.

When this happens repeatedly or with increasing severity it could lead to depression, and other mood disorders.

Content warning: This post contains spoilers for Only Yesterday.

It examines the mental health of a fictional character. It includes moments of ostracism, and some violence. It discusses self esteem and mental health.

If you need support, services like Headspace and Beyond Blue (based in Australia) can provide resources.

Examining some of Taeko’s memories shows how low self esteem, and the resulting low self belief, can come to life.

1. Taeko feels no support for her likes and dislikes from those closest to her.

In an early memory, Taeko’s father brings home a Pineapple. A rare and expensive gift received in his professional life. The family, made up of Father, Mother, two older sisters, a Grandmother, and finally Taeko, sit down to eat the exotic fruit.

When her Father dislikes the taste of real fruit, he takes out a cigarette, clearly preferring the smokey flavour. A cloud of his smoke drifts across the table as Taeko’s sisters remark that Bananas truly are the king of fruit, and that canned Pineapple tastes better (soaked in a sugar preservative, most fruit tastes different).

Taeko says she enjoys real pineapple, but the dissonance is clear on her face. She likes the fruit, but her family does not.

This may be the first time she felt like her likes and dislikes were not worthy, being the youngest with the least power, influence, agency, and self determination in a room of people who disagree with her, even indirectly.

2. Being singled out and criticised unfairly by people Taeko trusts.

Everyone experiences criticism, however when we hear a harsh opinion from a someone close, it can be devastating. In another moment with her family, Taeko overhears her Mother’s extreme dissatisfaction with her mathematics test score. She explicitly says that she thinks there’s something wrong with Taeko. It’s a difficult scene to watch, almost as tough as the next memory.

3. Taeko experiences violence, and experiences contempt from a family member.

A later scene is violent – Taeko’s father slaps her when she steps outside with no shoes on, covering her stockings with dirt. Taeko was angry and feeling emotional at this time, unable to decide if she wanted to stay home, or go out. Her sister had recently treated her with contempt over who owned an enameled purse. Her father may have lashed out from impatience. Either way, Taeko is affected into her adulthood. She forgives her father, but notes that she always questioned why it happened.

4. Taeko feels confusion and fear at starting puberty. Her family is distant and unavailable to support her.

Her school teaches her and all the girls in her class about menstruation. The boys begin to tease Taeko about being on her period. She reacts with anger and fear. Another classmate reassures her that there is nothing to be ashamed of – the crucial point? The classmate was reassured of the natural process of becoming an adult by her mother. Taeko received no such support from her Mother, or even Grandmother.

5. Taeko is snubbed by another student, who refuses to shake her hand when he leaves the school.

A young boy, characterised by his poor family and shabby appearance, assigned to the seat next to Taeko refuses to shake her hand when he leaves to transfer to another school. This simple act crystallises the self esteem points brought up in Only Yesterday.

When discussing the small but powerful act with her new friend Toshio later in the film, he points out that the boy had no power in the classroom. As her assigned Neighbour, interacting with her the most, not shaking her hand was the only power he could assert. The insight here is the reiteration that feeling like an outsider can have powerful corrosive effects on self image and self esteem. In this case, Taeko experienced an anti-social act from a classmate who was also, no doubt, suffering the effects of ostracism.

Eventually, after talking through all of these problems with her new friends, Taeko is able to recover, and change careers.

This is a fitting end for the film, having depicted how acknowledging and talking about her past has help Taeko find the self belief she needs to move forward.

What are your thoughts? Have you seen the film, or are you planning to track it down? Let me know in the comments.

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