First Look: Sing “Yesterday” For Me

Alternative title(s): Yesterday wo Utatte
Manga Adaptation by Doga Kobo
Streaming on Crunchyroll

Premise

Rikuo Uozumi is struggling with adapting to life after college, sustaining himself by working part-time at a convenience store. As he gets closer to Haru, a regular customer with a pet crow, and his old flame Shinako enters his life once more, Rikuo finally finds the motivation to escape his rut. Matters are complicated, however, once the mysterious Haru turns out to be a former student of Shinako’s.

Aqua’s verdict: All Troubles Seem So Far Away

I’m getting more and more convinced of the idea that anime adaptations are often a blessing rather than a curse. Great manga seldom make great anime, and great anime are seldom based on great manga. Here in the Western anime fandom, a manga becoming an anime tends to be considered a crowning token of a work’s popularity and quality, while in reality, the motives for green-lighting anime adaptations are more often than not strictly financial. On the other hand, this take on Kei Toume’s Sing “Yesterday” For Me does feel like a triumph of sorts, a long overdue affirmation of her contributions to the medium, and to the coming-of-age genre in particular. For almost thirty years now, Toume’s sketchy art style and considerate character writing have made her an underrated staple of seinen manga, and the premium treatment Doga Kobo are giving her work seems to indicate that they know. Their version of her seminal opus Sing “Yesterday” For Me is an adaptation that is clearly trying to be the best possible version of itself and a stark reminder of the fact that when it comes to stories like this one, anime has very little left to learn.

Right out of the gate, “Yesterday” does a lot to show why adapting it in the year 2020 is no out of left field decision. Rikuo is the type of self-deprecating main character whose picture is destined to adorn countless “big mood” tweets, while the slight sprinkle of late nineties nostalgia — the manga started in 1997, and Doga Kobo chose not to modernize the setting in any way — tossed in will lasso in anxious millennials like Animal Crossing and avocado toast. Yet while our protagonist’s relatability is universal, Haru’s characterization positively reeks of devices that have long since fallen in disuse. A lot of my love for this show comes from an enjoyment of her frisky antics, but gosh, she is one of the most egregious cases of “manic pixie dream girl” I have seen in years, all flirts and quirks and seemingly being cast from the heavens to drag some brooding, sensitive guy somewhere out of his funk. It’s not necessarily the tropiness of it all that’s worrying here — it hardly ever is — it’s the message these tropes can send. Did we really need to go back to 1997 to find a story about women who are only defined by their relationship to a man? Our current decade already has plenty of those.

Nevertheless, “Yesterday” is pitched as an ensemble piece first and foremost, and Toume and director/writer Yoshiyuki Fujiwara sow enough seeds for both Haru and Shinako to grow into fully developed individuals to earn the benefit of the doubt. It’s Fujiwara in particular whose understated flourishes inject this adaptation with the humanity it needs. The director, who cut his teeth on moe shows like Engaged to the Unidentified, Plastic Memories and New Game!, effortlessly proves his ability to play in the big leagues with this production, using the very basics of good filmmaking to turn a relatively uneventful series of conversations into magnetic viewing.

All in all, that’s all there is to say about Sing “Yesterday” For Me for now. It is not a show that hooks you in with a provocative premise or rolls out the set pieces to get you to tune in next time. It’s a show that seems to demand empathy, a commitment of sorts, of its viewers, setting itself up to only reward them in the long run. That’s an odd, maybe even an ill-advised thing to do in 2020, but then again, this is the era in which people are more than willing to watch the exact same isekai show over and over and over again. “Yesterday” honestly doesn’t even really need any particularly gripping plot right now. Not yet. And that’s alright. Like life, this first episode is all about the small things, aimlessly floating on a sea of melancholy in that perfect way only the Japanese seem to be able to convey so damn well. Every once in a while, an anime comes around that reminds us of this fact, and it’s only fair to Kei Toume that she’ll finally get to taste the succes of an art form she helped shape.

Artemis’ verdict: I Believe In “Yesterday”

This definitely isn’t a show that will be for everyone. It’s the kind of thing where the action is purely internal and all its charm lies in quietly contemplative realism – a meandering slice-of-life piece that doesn’t appear to be going anywhere in a hurry, if indeed it ends up going anywhere at all. It’s characters, trying to navigate life as best they can, and in most cases failing to live up to the standards of mainstream society in one way or another, are just as introspective as the setting, eschewing drama and instead gazing at their environment with a kind of clear-eyed cynicism. If that all sounds a bit vague or even entirely pointless, “Yesterday” probably won’t float your boat. There’s very little in the way of plot to speak of – instead, it’s really all about the characters and how they view their various choices and situations, no matter how uninteresting they might seem to the outsider. It’s not an exaggerated, more colourful or particularly optimistic version of real life – it’s just life itself, without any embellishments to make it seem more interesting or hopeful for the sake of the viewer. Of course, whether that can keep my attention for 17 more episodes remains to be seen, but for now, I’m totally on board with it.

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