An Isao Takahata Retrospective
Studio Ghibli’s been quite the talk of the animation world since the groundbreaking success of Spirited Away with Western audiences in 2001. They’ve had a marvelous run before and since then, and films such as Princess Mononoke, Howl’s Moving Castle, and My Neighbor Totoro have become household favorites, cultural icons and forerunning examples of the excellence of Japanese animated films. The man of the hour, of course, is Hayao Miyazaki, whose aesthetic style, coming-of-age stories and fascination with the fantastical and technological alike have made him not simply one of the greatest animators alive but an auteur in his own right. Much has been written about his work, whether it is in the inspired and beautiful depictions of landscapes and various beings in Spirited Away, or the fascinating aerial vehicles in Porco Rosso and The Wind Rises, so it has slowly become apparent that Miyazaki’s work is incredibly wholesome.
But I hope to, in this piece, shed a bit of light on the other rather significant figure that contributed to the Ghibli fame: Isao Takahata, whom many will know as the director of one of Ghibli’s most harrowing (if not the most) film(s) to date, Grave of the Fireflies. His work, though not particularly well-known, provides a facet of realism and development which has since become equally significant in the success of the studio, and is thus especially worthy of attention.
Isao Takahata was born in 1935 as the youngest of seven siblings in the city of Ujiyamada, Mie Prefecture. As a child, Takahata was no stranger to the horrors of war, having experienced and survived bombings and air raids by the U.S. on his hometown. His childhood war experiences would later become sources of inspiration and depictions in Grave of the Fireflies.
Yet despite the grim reality of both his childhood and its depictions in his most well-known film, Takahata’s work would become increasingly light-hearted whilst maintaining an innate fascination with the realistic everyday (a trait that he believes distinguishes himself from Miyazaki), careful to veer away from the overly fantastical. Prior to the formation of Studio Ghibli, Miyazaki and Takahata worked and collaborated on a number of films, including Horus: Prince of the Sun (1968), a children’s anime series Heidi: Girl of the Alps (1974) and two shorts, Panda! Go, Panda! and Panda! Go, Panda! The Rainy Day Circus in 1972 and 1973 respectively.
Before Takahata formally joined Ghibli in 1985, however, he adapted and directed two other films, Jarinko Chie (1981) and Gauche The Cellist (1982). The work of Takahata seen in Jarinko Chie exhibits his attention to detail at adapting his given source material and an inclination towards the slice-of-life genre, as well as a meandering pace, traits that are exemplified in his later work such as Only Yesterday and My Neighbors The Yamadas. And so, even before beginning with Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli, Takahata, in his pre-1985 works, has shown considerable talent in directing and writing compelling stories, perhaps maturing even earlier than Miyazaki.
The Ghibli Years
Upon the success of Grave of the Fireflies, Takahata’s first film with Studio Ghibli, he begins work on his next film, Only Yesterday, a nostalgic narrative concerning a 27-year-old Taeko, whose journey to the rural countryside spurs her to reminisce about her childhood and the choices she has since made. The cuts between her in the present and the memories she relives are excellent examples of Takahata’s vignette-like pacing he brings to his later work, such that whilst a fixed and apparent narrative appears to be absent, there always feels like there’s a rhythm entirely suited to his characters’ nostalgic nature, that we, as the audience, are constantly looking to the past through his protagonists’ eyes. There is a compelling sense of realism, a universal bittersweetness in this film that calls back not only to Takahata’s earlier work but distinguishes him from Miyazaki’s fantastical and overblown landscapes. Unlike Miyazaki, Takahata concerns himself with the minute and fleeting moments of significance, the points of epiphany or simple unknowing joy that exists in all of our childhoods.
Fantasy and Family: Pom Poko and My Neighbors The Yamadas
His subsequent two works, Pom Poko and My Neighbors The Yamadas, continue Takahata’s streak with nonlinear storytelling, preferring instead jumping from vignette to vignette, creating the occasional comic relief and allowing the audience to piece together the stories themselves. Pom Poko, whose premise deals with a group of tanuki (raccoon dogs) and their antics, fighting back against the deforestation and invasion of humans upon their habitat. The central themes and ideas call back to Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke, though it is apparent that the approach of Takahata is vastly different, instead, he opts for voiceover narration and offbeat humor. A key characteristic of the Tanuki depicted in the film is none other than their large ballsacks, meant to symbolize their virility and playfulness. It’s a combination of factors like these, from the offbeat pacing, strange humor and idiosyncratic approach, that indicates Takahata’s belief that his films are directed more at adults as opposed to children.
The latter of the two, My Neighbors the Yamadas, is an adaptation of a comic by Hisaichi Ishii, retaining Takahata’s trademark pacing but also showcasing his capabilities at aesthetic and stylistic adaptation. Takahata retains the comic’s simplistic drawings of its characters, a quality that would have no doubt contributed to the film’s lack of popularity. Despite all this, it is a focus on the development of the characters, the family and their various everyday antics that bring his work back to the familiar ground of the slice-of-life, and so whilst it is rare that one might find a grand gesture or message behind My Neighbors The Yamadas, it is certainly a pleasant experience to simply be among these strange vignettes, and who accurately reflect the silly moments we all have with family.
The Tale of Princess Kaguya
Finally, we come to Takahata’s crowning Ghibli achievement, a film I personally believe far exceeds his previous work and is even marginally better than Grave of the Fireflies. This beautiful, heartwarming film is none other than Takahata’s latest addition to the Ghibli ouevre, The Tale of Princess Kaguya. An adaptation of the age-old japanese myth “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter”, the plot surrounds a girl who is found inside a glowing bamboo shoot. Her parents find her and decide to adopt her, calling her a princess for the ceremonial robes she wore when she was found. Soon, “Little Bamboo” (a name given to her by her friends) finds herself confronted with love, adulthood, societal expectations and the demands of her supernatural lineage, all of which come together in fascinating form.
There is no lack of discussion on Miyazaki’s inimitable visual style, and so it is perhaps apparent that Takahata’s lack of it puts him in a different league from Miyazaki. Yet in spite of this, Takahata uses it to his advantage, and the sheer visual storytelling present in this film is otherworldly. Each frame is reminiscent of “Japanese watercolor paintings brought to life”, stated by Kyle Anderson, a critic, and reviewer for Nerdist magazine, further explaining that “The colors, muted in the way a watercolor painting is, seem to flow and reform like the bodies of water that play such a big part in the narrative. It looks like we’re watching a much older film, in a good way. If drawn and animated in the traditional Ghibli style, these stories would absolutely not have the same effect.” Takahata, in his almost decade-long hiatus since My Neighbors The Yamadas, has brought to life something truly awe-inspiring. The style may not be as familiar or recognizable as the usual Ghibli fare, but it is entirely befitting of the story that is rooted in deep folklore, reaching instead for the pinnacle of any adaptation, which is accurately and effortlessly translating the sheer emotional turmoil of our young princess, onto the watercolor page.
Work and Influence
In an interview, Hiromasa Yoneyabashi, former director of films for Ghibli and now associated with Studio Ponoc, recounts the advice of Takahata, stating: “the content decides what kind of expression to use. If you only have one form of an expression, it just becomes a style, rather than a fit with the content.” Takahata’s free-form visual style is informed by his inclination to always respect the source material, and to ensure that form follows content. It’s no surprise, then, that Takahata lacks a distinctive visual style, since his works are continuously informed by the nature of its source, and the sheer variety of the works he has chosen to adapt have thus led to a plethora of different visual languages.
As such, in some ways, Takahata’s an auteur as well, just in a different sense. All throughout his films, well-received or not, is a careful, calculated precision in editing and sound, perhaps not as immediately noticeable as that in Miyazaki’s films but present nevertheless. It is in his fixation with the minute, the moments instead of the grandeur, and his rootedness in realism, which gives his works a realm that isn’t always inhabited by Miyazaki, and in his meandering and vignette-like pace, which creates a bittersweet vision of the everyday, and the nostalgia that comes along with the inevitable passage of time.
We can see his influences in landmark works of animation, such as Mamoru Hosoda’s Wolf Children, and Michael Dudok De Wit’s The Red Turtle, a film produced by Takahata himself. Of the wealth of research and praise of Studio Ghibli’s incredible works, this, in particular, pertains to Takahata’s films: “adults can enjoy them as much as children, and those who rewatch a Takahata film as an adult may notice that their impressions of the film or characters change”, so let us hope that generations of people, children or not, will continue to appreciate, enjoy and develop, evolving impressions of Takahata’s work.
What do you think? Leave a comment.