In spite of being Japan's highest-grossing film in 1991, Studio Ghibli's adult-oriented, non-make-believe Only Yesterday is only now enjoying its first U.S. release. It's both an important part of Ghibli's history and a gem in its own right.
Taeko (Miki Imai) is an unmarried 27-year-old Tokyo native in 1982 who travels to the country to work for a spell on a safflower farm. Along the way, she begins to reminisce about being 10 years old, living with her parents and two sisters while dealing with the indignities and pleasures of school and life. Only Yesterday alternates between the two timelines, with 1966 Taeko (Youko Honna) getting as much if not more screen time as 1982 Taeko -- who, though not necessarily unhappy with her life, still wonders if she's grown into the kind of person she wanted to be.
1982 Taeko is aware of her 10-year-old self as an active presence in her life; as she ruminates on the train, "I didn't intend the 10-year-old me to come on this trip. But somehow, once she showed up … she wouldn't leave me alone." We then see young Taeko emerge from a curtain behind her older self's back; she's not a ghost, or a figment of older Taeko's imagination, as the grown-up her doesn't actually see her earlier incarnation.
It's in slices of life, most of them more mundane or painful, where Only Yesterday truly shines. The present-day scenes often have the pastoral reveries common in anime; the socioeconomics of safflower rouge production is explained in some detail, as well as the benefits of organic farming by 1982 Taeko's potential love interest Toshio (Toshirô Yanagiba).