A tribute to the late Isao Takahata, the unsung hero of Studio Ghibli

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Apr 10, 2018

Hayao Miyazaki is the human face of Studio Ghibli, the most beloved animation studio since the early days of Disney. He was the mind behind some of the company's greatest hits, including Totoro, the rotund, lovable creature who first debuted 30 years ago this month. However, My Neighbor Totoro wasn’t the only film the studio released in April 1988. It was part of a double feature, and the second film, more aimed at adults, was Grave of the Fireflies. That film was directed by one of Miyazaki's greatest contemporaries and colleagues, Ghibli co-founder Isao Takahata, who died of lung cancer last week at the age of 82.

Takahata only directed five features for Studio Ghibli: Fireflies, Only Yesterday, Pom Poko, My Neighbors the Yamadas and The Tale of Princess Kaguya. If Miyazaki will forever be unfairly but inevitably compared to Walt Disney, then that would make Takahata Miyazaki’s Ub Iwerks; an animator partially responsible for the creation of Mickey Mouse, who animated the Mouse’s first shorts, developed numerous innovations in animation — including the process that mixed animation with live-action — inspired the work of Osamu Tezuka ("The Godfather of Manga" and creator of Astro Boy) and whose name is nowhere near as big as his more famous contemporary.

Obviously there’s no telling if Takahata will only be known to the most hardcore of animation fans, however, because of his limited output in the 30 plus years since Studio Ghibli’s founding — due to his insistence at perfectionism — he’s always been referred to as the "other" director at Studio Ghibli, after the great Miyazaki.

So with the event of his passing, it’s only right that we look back at the career of one of the most underappreciated animation directors in the history of Japanese animation, and animation history as a whole.

Credit: Sentai Filmworks

Takahata was born in Japan on October 29, 1935. When he was nine years old, he and his family survived a U.S air raid on Okayama City. "I could not stop shaking, faced with a situation in which I could have died at any moment," he told the Japanese newspaper The Mainchi in 2015. He was left alone to care for himself and his sister, as in the chaos they were separated from their mother (their father was inside a local school where he worked at the time of the bombing). That day, Takahata saw death first hand, seeing the sight of lifeless bodies inside a bomb shelter; the experience made him understand, "what war is about," and would serve as the inspiration for Grave of the Fireflies.

Growing up, Takahata had no interest in animation; he studied French Literature at the University of Tokyo, where he happened to see an unfinished version of The King and The Mockingbird, directed by French animation legend Paul Grimault. It was after seeing that film that he found himself interested in the medium. He had no intention of drawing, but wanted to write and direct stories specifically for animation. He took a test for an assistant director job at Toei Animation, the company responsible for the original Devilman and Mazinger Z anime series (and later, Dragon Ball Z ). He got the gig, and got to work on various Toei TV series and feature films.

He started working on his directorial debut, The Great Adventure of Horus, Prince of the Sun, in the fall of 1965. The film would mark the first time Takahata would collaborate with Miyazaki on a feature film, as Miyazaki did scene design and key animation. The story, according to The Nerdist's series of articles about Takahata’s films, "is based on a puppet play by screenwriter Kazuo Fukazawa which itself is a reinterpretation of the Japanese folk legend of Yukar." Japanese folklore is something that Takahata will revisit again and again throughout his career.

Horus is a landmark in the history of Japanese animation. At the time, anime was just making its mark on television thanks to the debut of Astro Boy, Tetsujin 28-go, Kimba the White Lion — the first colored anime TV series and inspiration for Disney’s The Lion KingSally the Witch, and Cyborg 009. Films were being produced, but Horus was a step above anything that came before it.

The film tells the of Horus, a young boy with an ancient sword he recovered from a stone giant, attempting to protect a village that mistrusts him from the evil ice demon Grimulad. It was more mature than your typical anime story in the 1960s. The film's action scenes were smoother, more kinetic and much more violent than was the norm for anime at the time. The film also featured a complex, multi-dimensional female character named Hilda, something that would become a staple of Studio Ghibli.

The film was made to mark a new direction for Japanese animation and it succeeded. Horus was released in 1968, the same year as The Jungle Book, the final film Walt Disney would be involved in. Where for the last 30 years Disney was seen as the pinnacle of animation, the release of Horus saw the baton passed.

Credit: Toei Animation

Seen as a landmark today, Horus was considered a failure for the studio and Takahata’s career. Even after cutting down more than 30 minutes of the films runtime, production of Horus took three years. The reason for the extended production — Toei films usually had a production schedule of eight to ten months — was because of the oversized ambition of the production staff and quest for perfectionism that Takahata would become known for throughout his career.

Toei was so displeased that the film had gone so over budget, that they released the film before it was finished, having it only shown in theaters for less than two weeks, released it internationally under a different title that made little sense to the film's story, and did very little to promote it. The film bombed and Takahata was demoted back to assistant director, never to be allowed to take the reins on a Toei film again.

Takahata’s next two directorial efforts 1972’s Panda! Go! Panda! and its sequel, The Rainy Circus, were both under 40 minutes and were big hits in Japan. The films came after Takakhata, Miyazaki and others left Toei and ventured to Switzerland to produce a film based on the popular Pippi Longstocking series of children books. Even after doing extensive research and pre-production, they were rejected by Astrid Lindgren, the creator of the character; Takahata, along with Miyazaki, would go on to work on the first Lupin the Third series and then reworked the Longstocking project into Panda! Go! Panda!.

Takahata would not direct another feature until 1981’s Jarinko Che, a slice-of-life comedy centered on a village and the young, upfront, angry girl who helps her father run a tavern and tries to reunite him with her mother. The film was successful and lead to an anime series spin-off. His second film of the '80s — and the last before he co-founded Ghibli — was Gauche the Cellist, based off Japanese writer Kenji Miyazawa’s 1937 short story, which took three years longer than Horus took to complete.

Unlike Horus, the film was produced and released in its intended form and is truly an underappreciated marvel. Over four nights, a number of animals — a talking cat, a cuckoo bird, a tanuki (raccoon-dog) and a mouse — come to visit Gauche, a young man who is trying to improve his playing of the cello after getting taken to the woodshed by his music instructor. They all play along with him and Gauche develops a relationship with each animal, while learning to have a deeper appreciation of music (while improving). It’s like Whiplash, only animated, with talking animals, and a more likable protagonist.

In 1985, Takahata, along with Miyazaki – who had already directed Nausicaa, Valley of the Wind, (which Takakhata produced) – and producer Toshio Suzuki, founded Studio Ghibli. A year later would see the release of the first Ghibli film, 1986’s Castle in the Sky, which Takahata produced, and then the double feature of My Neighbor Totoro and Grave of the Fireflies.

Grave of the Fireflies, a film showing the final days of two Japanese children, teenage Seita and his younger sister Setsuko, is Takahata’s best work. Based off a story written twenty years prior, it is one that could have only been told properly through animation.

To show how the city of Kobe, Japan was decimated by U.S airships; the way the dead body of Seita and Setsuko’s mother is shown; covered in bandages, blood seeping through part of it, flies and maggots on and around her body, and the deteriorating health of the two children, could only be done properly through animation (a live-action version of the film exists, but it isn’t as impactful as the original version). While not having the same cultural impact as Totoro and the other major anime release of 1988, Akira, one viewing of Grave of the Fireflies is pretty much guaranteed to never leave you. It is a film that shows you in detail the true victims of war and one that has perhaps made countless viewers sob into their hands for the past three decades.

In the '90s, Ghibli released seven films, three directed by Takahata. The 1991 coming of age drama Only Yesterday, the 1994 comedy-drama Pom Poko and 1999’s family comedy My Neighbors the Yamamdas.

The first two were extremely successful in Japan, with Only Yesterday and Pom Poko being Japan’s highest grossing films of 1991 and 1994 respectively. Yamadas was not as successful at the box office, but still earned critical respect. If you happen to not be too familiar with Takahata’s '90s output, it isn’t surprising; Yesterday didn’t receive western distribution until 2016, Poko and Yamadas a year prior. While Miyzaki’s films started to get grander in scope and with it more adulation from audiences around the world, Takahata stuck to the themes that made up his prior work: Japanese folklore and the everyday lives of his fellow Japanese citizens.

Only Yesterday tells the story of Taeko, an unmarried office worker in her mid-20s, living in 1980s Tokyo. She travels by train back to her childhood village to help with the villages safflower harvest. The trip makes her think of her childhood, in particular 1966, when she was in fifth grade. The look of the film changes when we are taken into Taeko’s memories. The trip makes Takeo question herself and the decisions she has made since she left the village to live in the city. The film touches on nostalgia and how it can be a good thing to revisit so-called simpler times, while not allowing yourself to become a slave to it, to forgive yourself for past mistakes and embrace the good things you have now.

Yesterday was a rare film for the studio and for the medium. It’s a film about an adult woman and the problems adult women face. In the 25 years since the film's release in Japan, it still stands out, as stories like the one Takahata told are still rare in live-action films and television, let alone animation.

Pom Poko follows a group of tanukis that try to save their forest that has practically been erased thanks to urban development. They try to achieve this by playing pranks on the human population that moves in, using their ability to transform into objects, spirits, and even other humans.

While being more in the line of what Ghibli is known for, a story based in fantasy with a pro-environmental message, Poko separates itself from other Ghibli films (and animated films in general) with a style that’s more like a documentary or memoir thanks the ongoing voice narration that is used throughout the film. Also, while there is no real main antagonist in this movie – the humans are moving in to deal with a housing crisis happening in Japan – the film goes into some very dark territory, especially toward the end, with a more rebellious group of tanuki’s die after battling humans head on. When the characters do die, they are shown looking more realistic, letting the audience know of the real world consequences of sacrificing forested lands in order to build small cities.

My Neighbors the Yamadas was at the time the most radically different film in the history of Studio Ghibli. A series of shorts all surrounding one singular family and how they go about small things like control of the TV remote and heavier subjects, such as the relationship between a father and his son; Yamadas had a very minimalist look, which made it resemble a comic strip rather than an anime film.

In another departure from the studio, Yamadas is the first fully digital Studio Ghibli film, as Takahata wanted it to look more like watercolor drawings and he could only achieve this if he abandoned the more traditional cel-animation style that the studio was known for keeping alive, as with the rise of Pixar, digital animation was becoming more prominent in the production of animated films.

Credit: Studio Ghibli

After the Yamadas, Takahata did not release another feature for 15 years, while Miyazaki followed up Porco Rosso and Princess Mononoke with 2001’s Spirited Away, the first anime film to win the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature and until Makoto Shinkai’s 2014 film Your Name, it was Japan’s highest grossing film of all time. The success of all those films solidified Miyazaki as the great animation director of our time.

After contributing to the collaborative film Winter Days in 2003, Takahata would start working on what would be his final film in 2008. As far as final films go, The Tale of Princess Kaguya should rank as one of the best. Based on "The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter," Princess Kaguya, the story of a tiny girl from the Moon, found by a poor farmer inside of a bamboo tree, done in a style that resembles watercolor paintings, which, as Nick Bradshaw wrote for Sight and Sound, "harks back to Japanese woodblock and scroll art," and based on a folktale that is the oldest in the history of Japan, feels like the culmination of Takahata’s entire career.

The original plan was for Kaguya to release on the same day as The Wind Rises, Miyazaki’s 2013 supposed final film (he’s since come out of retirement, again), to mirror the release of Totoro and Fireflies 25 years prior. However, unsurprisingly, Kaguya took much longer to finish production, releasing a few months after Rises and releasing in the West in 2014. The film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature and was almost universally praised by critics.

The last project Takahada worked on was Michaël Dudok de Wit’s The Red Turtle, a co-production between German film distribution company Wild Bunch and Studio Ghibli as an artistic producer.

At the news of his passing, tweets and tribute pieces were written, all making me believe that Takahata is perhaps not as underappreciated as I once thought. However, as is the case with most classic animated films, it isn’t streaming anywhere. I’m sure there are legal reasons for it, but as someone who’s first anime experiences came from seeing them on TV, I can only imagine the people who may or may not recognize the name of Isao Takahata and then did a quick Netflix search, to find nothing. Yes, his films will more than likely screen at animation festivals, but the audience for that is limited compared to the potential global audience found in streaming services.

Isao Takahata was a master and should be revered as one. He should not be forgotten because his films were not as popular or acceptable than others. He was someone who cared about making telling great stories in one of the greatest and, yes, underappreciated forms of storytelling. So if you have a DVD or knowledge of a Takahata screening happening around you, let someone who likes animation and may not be familiar with his work know, because someone who has done so much for animation shouldn’t be forgotten.