Why Is Nobody Paying Attention To Isao Takahata?
Hayao Miyazaki's not the only master behind Japan's best film studio.
The Studio Ghibli brand is practically synonymous with Hayao Miyazaki and his cuddly Totoros. Any visitor to the Ghibli Museum in Tokyo will be overwhelmed with imagery from many of Miyazaki’s classic animated works, such as My Neighbour Totoro, Howl’s Moving Castle, and Spirited Away. Miyazaki has been referred to as the Japanese Walt Disney, and to the untrained observer, Ghibli can easily seem like his own personal production line, with each non-Miyazaki release just a placeholder awaiting the appearance of the next real blockbuster.
But unnoticed by many, and under-appreciated by most, Studio Ghibli has another, bona-fide, capital-G Genius working within its walls. Isao Takahata, who cofounded the studio with Miyazaki (and producer Toshio Suzuki), has actually been working as an animation director longer than his younger co-founder. The two worked together for some years at Toei Animation studio, where Miyazaki was chief animator on Takahata’s directorial debut, Hols: Prince of the Sun. Later, they branched out together, directing episodes of the Lupin III television series.
Takahata went on to adapt a number of literary works into acclaimed TV programs, such as Heidi, Girl of the Alps (on which Miyazaki also worked), 3000 Leagues in Search of Mother, and Anne of Green Gables. When Miyazaki worked on his own epic TV series Future Boy Conan, Takahata subbed in as director for a couple of episodes.
Whereas Miyazaki mostly makes classic adventure stories, enlivened by some emotional acuity, moral complexity, and visual panache, Takahata’s films are harder to pigeonhole. More intellectual in style—they are both formally and narratively adventurous—they nevertheless build up an emotional force that can be almost overwhelming.
There were mangled reports earlier in the year that Takahata and Miyazaki’s studio is closing for good, but it seems to be more like a production hiatus, as the company re-assesses its direction in the wake of Miyazaki’s retirement. With the imminent Australian release of Takahata’s latest feature, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, now is as good a time as any to acquaint yourself with Ghibli’s other genius, cause pretty soon it might be too late.
Let Junkee walk you through Takahata’s Studio Ghibli films one by one.
Grave of the Fireflies (1988)
You might also know this film by its unofficial title as Saddest Movie Ever Made; it’s about two children starving to death, alone, so the designation is definitely well earned. In its original release in Japan it was shown as a double feature with My Neighbour Totoro, which would make for an absolutely baffling study in contrasts.
Set in and around Kobe at the close of the Second World War, the film follows teenage Seita and his much younger sister Setsuko. When their city is firebombed, and their mother dies from horrific burns, the siblings swiftly find themselves without a social safety net. They board with their Aunt for a time, but what with wartime rationing, she quickly starts to begrudge having an extra pair of mouths to feed; so they take of to fend for themselves. A slow drift into malnutrition and death ensues.
In its thoughtful dramatisation of Japan’s war-time history, Fireflies makes a neat companion piece to Miyazaki’s final film The Wind Rises – not least because both seem to be at least partly misunderstood by their lovers and haters. Whereas Miyazaki’s film was often deemed insufficiently anti-war, Takahata’s is praised as an anti-war masterpiece, when it isn’t quite that. Both films use the enormous, overpowering social tides of war as a backdrop to an intimate character portrait.
Although the film is critical of the social indifference makes orphans of its protagonists, it is also a study in fatally bad decision-making. Seita could choose to put up with his Aunt’s grumbling, but instead he bounds off on a boys-own adventure into self-sufficiency – taking his helpless little sister along. They make a home for themselves in an abandoned bomb shelter and Seita takes to robbing local houses for goods he can hawk for food, but Setsuko’s slide into malnutrition is ultimately preventable – the dismal product of a teen with too little foresight and too much responsibility. Like I said: sad.
Only Yesterday (1991)
Miyazaki gets well-earned cred for his strong female protagonists, but there’s nothing in his career as deeply drawn as the lead of Only Yesterday. The film follows Taeko, a 27-year-old Tokyo-ite who takes leave from her job to holiday on her brother-in-law’s family farm in the country. While there, Taeko undergoes numerous flashbacks to her years as a schoolgirl in the sixties; her current, quarter-life crisis is reflected in the cascade of small discoveries and disappointments that make up her childhood memories.
On the face of it, the film has the shape of a typical romance about a city-slicker girl seduced by a country boy. But Takahata is too focused on Taeko’s rich emotional inner life for the plot to ring as false. Although she does find an opportunity for partnership with a local organic farmer, the film is ultimately more about Taeko’s attraction to the slow-living style of agrarian labor.
Takahata illustrates this arc with a series of emotionally premise, Impressionistically rendered childhood vignettes. Particular attention is paid to the tensions of family conflict, the anxieties of on-coming puberty, and the rush of the childhood crush. In one sweet scene, Taeko has her first conversation with the boy who likes her, and then runs home, rocked by feels.
Pom Poko (1994)
You might also know this movie by its unofficial title as Family Film with the Most Onscreen Testicles. This environmental adventure story follows a community of tanuki (or Japanese raccoon dogs) as they wage a campaign against the encroaching deforestation and development of the nearby city. True to tradition, the tanuki are depicted with prominent gonads, which they also use as weapons in their battle against the humans. Like so:
Although it never loses its sense of fun, Pom Poko gradually shifts from romp to elegy. The tanuki’s war is hopeless—the monster of urbanization is undefeatable—and the story ends with their communities splintered and their habitat razed. Some tanuki use their magic in order to disguise themselves among the human population, while other eke out a living in the remaining parks and gardens within the city limits. It’s not quite a happy ending, but, as with all Takahata’s works, it feels emotionally true.
My Neighbours the Yamadas (1999)
Miyazaki’s protagonists are likely to be orphans, or near to it, with one or more parental figures dead or absent – which is pretty much keeping with the classic, adventure story mold. But Takahata is intimately concerned with family dynamics, and the family unit (usually mother, father, kids, and an elder) is a recurring foundation to his films.
My Neighbours the Yamadas is a freewheeling series of episodes in the life of the Yamada family. Drawn in a brisk, watercolour style, the film has the brevity of a comic strip with the warmth of a children’s illustration book. Returning to the vibe of the family scenes in Only Yesterday, Takahata hones in with laser focus on the tender humiliations and moments of grace in family life.
He also calls on the history of Japanese culture in a charming imaginary sequence that expresses the history of the Yamada’s marriage and children as a bricolage of art and folklore; here, the smooth oceans of couplehood turns into the stormy seas of marriage:
The birth of the Yamada’s second child, Nonoko, is rendered as a scene from the classic story of the Princess Kaguya, who was found in a bamboo stalk.
Which brings us to…
The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2013)
Takahata’s latest, and possibly last, film, is a faithful adaptation of this classic Japanese folk tale. When humble bamboo cutter Okina discovers a little girl in a stalk in the forest, he takes her home to raise her as her own. Surrounded by the lush flora and fauna of the surrounding valley, the child, later called Kaguya, grows up fit and happy amidst the children of the local itinerant farmers.
But Okina has been finding further gifts in the forest, of gold and fine cloth, and he comes to believe that his daughter is destined to belong among the aristocracy. Swept away to the city, Kaguya is introduced to the restrictions and formalities of palace life, and is forced to undergo the unwanted attentions of a series of suitors, as she heads towards a revelation about her own strange origins.
Whether or not it is his last film (Takahata seems unsure), Kaguya feels like a summing up of Takahata’s previous four directorial efforts at Ghibli. He depicts Kaguya’s infancy as a fantasy version of the agrarian childhood Taeko yearned for in Only Yesterday, or the carefree existence Seita sought in Fireflies. Her time in the capital is a compressed illustration of the family pressures found in Yesterday and Yamadas, and the rich vein of spirituality — especially in the transcendent climax — is reminiscent of the mythological edge given to the tanuki’s war in Pom Poko.
Drawn in a thick, charcoal style, the film completes the journey into pure expressionism that Takahata began with Yamadas. At one key emotional moment, the image dissolves into a series of stark line sketches – as though the animators couldn’t keep up with Kaguya’s roiling state of mind.
In the movie’s most overwhelming moment, Takahata restages Taeko’s love-struck step up into the clouds as a dance for two. Kaguya returns to her childhood home to spend one last afternoon with the boy she left behind, and the two go running and swooping over the country as they are lifted up in an ecstasy of flight. Like the film, it might be the sweetest goodbye possible.
The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is screening in cinemas this month as part of Madman’s The Tale of Studio Ghibli Showcase.-
James Robert Douglas is a freelance writer and critic in Melbourne. His work has been found in The Big Issue, Meanland, Screen Machine, and the Meanjin blog. He tweets from @jamesrobdouglas.