Takahata, Isao

b. October 1935, Ise, Mie Prefecture, Japan
d. April 2018, Tokyo, Japan

“Without Isao Takahata, Studio Ghibli wouldn’t exist.”1

This is a bold statement from Nishimura Yoshiaki, who served as producer on Takahata’s final film, Kaguyahime no monogatari (The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, 2013) but it rings true. Without Takahata, Studio Ghibli may very well not exist; at the very least, the films of Hayao Miyazaki as we know them would have been quite different. It may be astonishing to learn then that according to Suzuki Toshio, Ghibli co-founder and producer, Takahata was never an official member of Studio Ghibli. Whilst he was in favour of the establishment of a studio, he felt that as a creator he shouldn’t put his personal seal on the official document, saying to Suzuki, “There is such a thing as a playwright in residence, right? That title would be fine with me.” 2

Nishimura describes Takahata as the “catalyst”, as the one who ‘discovered’ Miyazaki, the one who discovered Joe Hisaishi, the renowned composer who has scored all of Miyazaki’s films, and for mentoring Suzuki when the producer moved away from publishing and into producing films full time. Many associate Studio Ghibli primarily with Miyazaki’s masterworks, films such as Tonari no Totoro (My Neighbor Totoro, 1988), Mononoke Hime (Princess Mononoke; 1997), and Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi (Spirited Away, 2001), but Takahata’s works are equally profound. Drawing from folk tales, history, manga, and children’s literature, Takahata’s works meditate on topics as wide-ranging as war, the environment, memory, modern life in Japan, family, and death. Whilst they sometimes involve elements of fantasy, his films are firmly grounded in reality, finding the beauty, joy, and melancholy in everyday life.

Before Ghibli

Takahata Isao was born in 1935 in Ujiyamada (now Ise), in the Mie Prefecture. He studied French Literature at Tokyo University, after which he took a job directing animation at Toei Doga (now Toei Animation). Takahata himself did not draw or animate, but was interested in telling stories, and animation had always fascinated him.

He has said: “During World War II, in 1944 when I was eight years old, I saw The Spider and the Tulip by Kenzo Masaoka; it amazed and frightened me, and I was spellbound. I still think it is a brilliant work.” 3 Directed by Masaoka Kenzō, one of the earliest animators in Japan to work with cel animation and recorded sound, Kumo to Churippiru (or The Spider and the Tulip; 1943) is reminiscent of Walt Disney’s Silly Symphonies, and sees a spider try to lure and capture a lady bug in his web. She takes refuge in a tulip, and the spider is eventually washed away in a wild storm. Another film that would lead Takahata to pursue a career in animation is Paul Grimault’s 1955 film The King and Mister Bird, a film that would also prove highly influential to Miyazaki. 4

At Toei, Takahata and Miyazaki were both involved in the Labor Union, with Takahata at one point serving as Vice-Chairman and Miyazaki as Secretary-General. It was also at Toei that Takahata would direct his first feature film, Taiyou no Ouji: Horus no Daibouken (also known as Hols or Horus: Prince of the Sun or Little Norse Prince Valiant, 1968). The film sees a young boy, Horus or Hols, find the mythical ‘Sword of the Sun’. He sets off on an adventure to the village of his birth, at his father’s dying request, to defeat the ice-devil Grunwald and avenge the villages destruction. Hols was completed under difficult circumstances, including staff shortages, and the film performed poorly at the box office, resulting in Takahata’s ‘demotion’ to assistant director. Despite its poor returns, Hols is widely regarded as marking a turning in Japanese animation, and a sign of things to come regarding the films that Takahata and Miyazaki would go on to produce. 5

Heidi: Girl of the Alps, 1974

Takahata and Miyazaki, along with colleagues Otsuka Yasuo and Kotabe Yoichi in the early 1970s, left Toei and went independent, during a time when television animation was becoming extremely popular. Takahata would direct a 33-minute animation film, Panda kopanda (Panda! Go Panda! or Panda and child; 1972), and the 1973 sequel Panda kopanda amefurisa-kasu no maki (Panda Child: Rainy Day Circus), with Miyazaki working as key animator and layout artist alongside Otsuka, Kotabe, and Yoshifumi Kondō. From 1974 onwards, Takahata would direct three animated television series that would form part of the Sekai meisaku gekijo or ‘World Masterpiece Theatre’ collection: Arupusu no shojo haiji (Heidi: Girl of the Alps, 1974), Haha wo tazunete sanzenri (Three Thousand Leagues in Search of Mother, 1976), and Akage no An (Anne of Green Gables, 1979). Heidi in particular is considered a remarkable artistic achievement; animators went on location scouts to the Swiss Alps, paying careful attention to detail in order to create a world that felt as real as possible. The quality of the work was almost “over-engineered, far in excess of the minimum requirements for it to be fit for purpose.” 6 For Takahata, Heidi herself was to be the ideal child, something he felt he was not. Heidi’s character was inspired by the regret Takahata felt in not being able to show a great deal of emotion upon being reunited with his mother after surviving the air-raids of World War II. “Heidi’s carefree nature stems from my ideal image of what a child should be like—something I couldn’t be … I’ve since realised that adults shouldn’t try to determine a child’s personality and so I now ensure my characters are more realistic.” 7

Miyazaki has called Heidi Takahata’s masterpiece: “Given all the restrictions in animation then, he did everything he could. Not only that, he accomplished so much.” 8 This ideal image of what a child should be would also find expression in outspoken, cheerful, and passionate Anne Shirley in Takahata’s 1979 adaptation of Lucy Montgomery’s novel. Anne’s emotional outbursts and vivid imagination are brought to life in a charming and captivating manner; the picturesque Green Gables, as well as Anne’s ‘Lake of Shining Waters’ and ‘White Way of Delight’ are rendered in vibrant, dreamlike detail.

“Why do fireflies have to die so soon?”

Hotaru no Haka (Grave of the Fireflies; 1988) begins with death. On the 21st of September, 1945, 14-year-old Seita dies alone in a train station, starved. A cleaner finds his body and, indifferent amongst so much death, throws Seita’s empty candy tin into a field where it lands by Setsuko. Setsuko is Seita’s little sister, and she has passed away too. As she moves to run to her brother’s body, Seita’s spirit finds her. Reunited, Seita hands her the candy tin, which she holds close, and the two walk away hand in hand amidst a cloud of glowing fireflies.

Grave of the Fireflies is an adaptation of the short story of the same name by novelist Nosaka Akiyuki, an autobiographical story based on the authors experiences during the fire bombing of Kobe during World War II. Nosaka’s younger adoptive sister died as a result of malnutrition. Takahata’s film sees both brother and sister die; their father is away at war, and their mother dies early during the bombings. They live for a time with an Aunt, who resents them for giving her more mouths to feed. Defiant, Seita takes Setsuko and leaves his Aunt’s house, to live for a time in an abandoned bomb shelter. Unable to find enough food, Setsuko steadily grows weaker and sick due to malnutrition. Just as Seita finally withdraws money from his mothers bank account to buy food, she closes her eyes and never wakes again.

Grave of the Fireflies, 1988

It was important for Takahata that the film began with Seita’s death and his reunion with Setsuko:

“It’s traumatizing for an audience to see the lives of two happy people deteriorate over time until they die tragically … If an audience knows at the beginning of the film that the two will eventually die, they are more prepared to watch the film in the first place. I try to lessen an audience’s pain by revealing everything at the beginning.” 9

The film does not shy away from depicting the grim reality of the aftermath of the bombings. The death of the children’s mother, burnt and blackened bodies lie in the streets, and the sight of Setsuko’s emaciated body are depicted in harrowing detail. Despite this, there are still moments of simple pleasure to be found, the two snatching moments of joy where they can, returning home to gather supplies, Seita drinks from water spouting from a broken pipe, and smiles, refreshed; Setsuko enjoys the candy her brother shares with her; they run and play together at the beach; Seita gathers fireflies for his sister Setsuko, and the two watch in awe, transported for a moment away from the horrors of war. The film ends with Seita and Setsuko reunited in death and illuminated by fireflies, looking down upon modern Kobe, the memory of the past forever haunting the present.

Transformation, Tradition, Modernity, and Memory

In Japanese folklore, tanuki are creatures of mischief who play pranks on humans, and like the kitsune or fox spirits with which they are sometimes associated, possess supernatural powers of transformation, which are linked to their rather large testicles. Such acts of metamorphosis and transformation are uniquely suited to the animated form, and would provide fertile ground for Takahata’s 1994 feature, Heisei Tanuki Gassen Ponpoko (Pom Poko, 1994). The film features a group of tanuki [ 10. The English subtitles and English language dub of Ponpoko inaccurately translates ‘tanuki’ as ‘raccoon’. Tanuki are in fact not related to raccoons at all, and it would be more accurate to translate ‘tanuki’ as ‘raccoon dogs’.] are dismayed to find their forests and territory disappearing due to human development. The tanuki elders propose a plan: to chase the humans away using various tricks and guerrilla attacks by reviving the ancient skill of shape-shifting. The tanuki make various attempts to sabotage the construction efforts and frighten the humans away, culminating in a fantastical parade of yokai (goblins and spirits). The parade unfortunately has the opposite effect, with the humans delighted by the spectacle, and an opportunistic theme park operator taking credit for the event the next day. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, the landscape changes; human development will not be halted, and the tanuki are forced to admit defeat. Those who are unable to transform continue to live as best they can within their reduced forests. Many tanuki die, either killed in the initial fight against the humans or in random traffic accidents. Others choose to transform completely and begin living as humans permanently.

Heisei Tanuki Gassen Ponpoko (Pom Poko, 1994)

It would be easy to understand Pom Poko as simply a condemnation of human incursion into the natural habitats of native wildlife, however Takahata’s depiction of the relationship between human and animal is far more nuanced. At the end of the film, a tanuki named Ponkichi turns to the camera and addresses the audience: “You often hear on the news how foxes and raccoons are disappearing because of urban development, right? I wish you humans would stop saying that. Sure, some foxes and raccoons can shape-shift. But unfortunately, most of us can’t just disappear. What about the rest of the animals?”

Pom Poko is set around the development of Tama New Town in the Tama Hills, which was a large residential development that opened in 1971. 10 Various ‘new towns’ were constructed in the 1960s and 1970s, intended to form the basis of integrated living-working communities on the outskirts of Tokyo, part of a response to the population boom. Pom Poko imagines the development of Tama New Town from the point of view of the tanuki, and yet, the humans are never depicted as purely ‘evil’ invaders, but rather as careless, and ignorant. Their inability to see or acknowledge the powers of the tanuki is mostly due to their being unable to see the old stories as anything but that: stories. Many of the tanuki are sympathetic to the humans, and they are particularly tempted by human food. Ponkichi’s address to the audience at the films conclusion is request for humans to begin to look beyond their own world view and think about the animals who have nowhere to disappear to.

Takahata’s depiction of the tanuki in Pom Poko evokes an encounter between tradition and modernity in Japan, and is itself a narrative of transformation. Michael Dylan Foster describes the ‘death’ of the tanuki in Japan as the result of the coming of modernity and the transformation of the landscape. 11  Foster notes that the shapeshifting abilities of the tanuki are not limited to being able to transform only themselves, but their ability to reshape the landscape itself. This element of tanuki folklore comes into play towards the end of Pom Poko, when realising that they cannot stop the human development, the tanuki come together one final time, combining their powers of transformation to restore the land to how was in their memories. Urban development is replaced by rolling green, forested hills and rich farmland. The humans gaze around them in wonder, taken in by the illusion. Eventually the illusion breaks, and the new reality reasserts itself. It is a bittersweet moment. The tanuki who traditionally held the power of transformation find they cannot compete with or undo the transformation of the landscape undertaken by the humans.

Many of Takahata’s works explore this nuanced sense of nostalgia, a bittersweet acknowledgement of time passing and lives changing. Where Pom Poko uses the tradition and lore of the tanuki as its point of departure, in other cases a collision of past and present takes place in the home. Hôhokekyo tonari no Yamada-kun (My Neighbors the Yamadas,1999) sees three generations of the same family living under the one roof. The film is a series of comical, sweet and endearing vignettes featuring Grandma Shige, husband and wife Takashi and Matsuko, and children Noburo and Nonoko, the various daily adventures they face together. The film is firmly grounded in the everyday; Takashi argues with his son Noburo about the point of doing homework; Matsuko is forgetful and worries about what to make for dinner (which is usually curry); in a moment of crisis, the family realise they’ve lost Nonoko at a department store. Whilst they panic and bicker, bold Nonoko consoles another lost child (“You should hear my story. My father and mother and grandma and brother all got lost.”) Each section of the slice-of-life anthology film is bookended with classic poetry and haikus, including by Bashō Matsuo, a poet from Japan’s Edo period.

Hôhokekyo tonari no Yamada-kun (My Neighbors the Yamadas,1999)

“The moment I ran across the story of Only Yesterday I knew instinctively that Paku-san was the only person who could properly turn it into a film.” 12

Omoide poro poro (Only Yesterday; 1991) follows Taeko, a 27-year-old single woman working an office job in Tokyo in 1982. Taking a holiday to the countryside to visit her brother-in-laws family and help pick safflower on their farm, Taeko finds herself reminiscing. The film moves back and forth between the present day, and 10-year-old Taeko in 1966. Taeko’s memories revolve around simple moments: her first taste of fresh pineapple (upon which she decides banana is the superior fruit), the time she fainted visiting hot springs in Atami, memories of her first crush, learning about periods, fighting with her sisters, and being bad at math continually resurface. As her 10-year-old self accompanies her adult self on her holiday, Taeko wonders why. She muses that perhaps she is remembering those days of change because she is again going through a “chrysalis” stage, a time of reflection and transition as she reaches a turning point in her life. Should she go back to the city or stay in the country permanently?

Omoide poro poro (Only Yesterday, 1991)

Taeko’s memories revolve around her ordinary school days, whilst the spends her time picking safflowers on the farm. The Yamada family do not set off on any kind of fantastical adventure, no great tragedy befalls them, and their world is an ordinary one. Many of the most poignant and affecting moments in Takahata’s work come from the small moments of everyday life: a moment of reality, recognisable and tangible. These are the moments that resonate and allow imagination to take flight. When young Taeko has her first conversation with a boy she likes (he haltingly asks her, “Rainy day or cloudy or sunny day. Which do you like?”) she runs home elated, and is soon quite literally walking on air. She floats through the sky the rest of the way home, in a dreamy haze of purple and pink. When Nonoko Yamada realises that there was a time her parents weren’t married, an elaborate imagining of her parents’ early years of marriage are played out before us, beginning with the launching of a bobsled down a twisting track before they fly off a wedding cake and into ocean, the bobsled becoming a boat, fighting its way through the tempests of life. The epic of their married life includes references to everything from Hokusai’s Great Wave Off Kanagawa to the folk story The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter. For Anne Shirley a tree-lined Avenue becomes the White Way of Delight, and she is transported to a heavenly setting of flowers and cherubs. Takahata’s films find the comfort and pleasure in everyday life, but also transform such moments, bringing out the beautifully complex inner worlds of their characters.

Anne of Green Gables

‘Friendly Competitors’

“My old friends and I all refer to Isao Takahata, the director, by the nickname ‘Paku-san’. Paku-san’s hobbies are music and studying. He possesses rarely seen and highly sensitive compositional skills, but by nature he is also a real slugabed sloth.” 13

The nickname ‘Paku-san’ was given to Takahata by Miyazaki during their days at Toei, due to the quick way he would munch his breakfast in the mornings (the sound “paku-paku”, means ‘munch-munch’ in Japanese). 14  It is impossible to consider Takahata and his contribution to animation without considering his long collaboration and friendship with his Studio Ghibli co-founder. Their lives and their work are so intertwined it is impossible to speak of one without the mentioning the other. Their partnership began in 1963 or 1964 at Toei; Takahata was already a young director there, when Miyazaki began work as an inbetweener. Takahata took notice of the young animator as Miyazaki became well known around the studio for his drawing and storyboarding abilities. It is widely understood that it was Takahata’s interest and promotion of Miyazaki’s talents that allowed his career to flourish as it did. As Suzuki has stated, “To explain their relationship, Takahata is actually five years older. And when Miyazaki entered this industry, it was Takahata who had discovered him.” 15 Tze-Yue G. Hu (2010) describes their relationship as a nakama relationship:

Nakama is a Japanese term which means a “friend, a partner, a comrade, or a confidante”. According to Takahata, there were many nakama relationships at Toei during their time, and it was partly due to the intense and hectic schedule of their labor-intensive work.’ 16

For fifteen years, Takahata would direct and Miyazaki would draw the art, until Miyazaki set out on his own during production of Anne of Green Gables to direct his own work. He would proclaim then that, “The days of making ‘our’ films and calling ourselves partners are over. We’re at the next stage. I had to start directing.” 17 But when it came time for Miyazaki to direct his original work, Kaze no Tani no Naushika (Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, 1984), he asked Takahata to be his producer. Soon after the pair would co-found Studio Ghibli together with Suzuki, and whilst Takahata would only go on to produce one more film for Miyazaki (Tenkû no shiro Rapyuta or Laputa: Castle in the Sky; 1986), the two would continue to work alongside one another until after Takahata completed Yamadas in 1999.

Miyazaki and Takahata

To neatly define Miyazaki and Takahata’s relationship, which spanned over 50 years of their careers, is neither possible nor perhaps desirable. Theirs was a multifaceted partnership that was productive and generative, but at the same time they were each other’s harshest critics. According to Suzuki, their relationship can in one sense be considered a kind of friendly rivalry: “No doubt, they’re rivals. Friendly competitors.” 18 This friendly competition was part of the reasoning behind Suzuki’s plan to release Kaze tachinu (The Wind Rises, 2013) and Princess Kaguya simultaneously, something which hadn’t been done since My Neighbor Totoro and Grave of the Fireflies in 1988; the idea was this would motivate them both and push them to produce the best films they could. That strategy that would ultimately fail, as Princess Kaguya was delayed again and again due to Takahata’s inability to keep to a schedule, as well as (as his producers and Miyazaki so often remarked) his seeming lack of desire to finish the film. The term ‘friendly rivalry’ doesn’t quite capture the essence of their relationship either; long years working together and frequent collaboration would appear to have resulted in a friendship in which the two felt they could be almost brutally honest with each other. According to Sunada Mami, director of The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness (2013), Miyazaki would mention Takahata at least once a day, sometimes to praise him, and at others to say the complete opposite. At one point in the film, Miyazaki declares that he has completely given up on Takahata: “I’ve already abandoned him… as a film maker. He can’t make films anymore. He’s even trying to not finish…. Think I’m cruel?”

For his part, Takahata was equally as critical of Miyazaki. When Miyazaki chose to announce to the media his retirement after production had wrapped on The Wind Rises, Takahata was also invited to the press conference, which he declined. Miyazaki suggests to the press that he thinks this is because Takahata would never quit. Watching the press conference from the studio Takahata declares, slightly incredulous, that “That wasn’t the point! Announcing it to the press is what’s weird. Why would a director tell the press he is retiring?” 19

Towards the end of Sunada’s documentary, after the final shot of The Wind Rises has been completed, Miyazaki and Suzuki head up to the studio’s rooftop garden, where Takahata is waiting for them. Still in the middle of production on Princess Kaguya, he has dropped by the main studio (he is completing his film at Ghibli’s second facility). Sunada remains at a respectful distance, choosing not to intrude on this reunion of sorts. The three men talk easily and freely, and there is little evidence of the frustration Miyazaki has previously expressed. The mood is congenial and friendly; there is something warm and familiar in the image of these men, who have made so many moving animated works between, standing together in the sun. It is clear in this instant that these are men who, despite many frustrations and differences, understand each others quirks, peculiarities, and moods intimately. Perhaps their relationship is best summed up by one of the animators working on The Wind Rises. She simply says, “It’s a mystery. He must have something special. I do think that what Takahata-San does is really stimulating.” According to this animator, Miyazaki and Takahata’s relationship is one based on antithesis: “Who is light and who is shadow, I don’t know.” Even Miyazaki cannot understate the importance of their time together: “As we grew older, we got more stubborn and jaded, and we started to clash more, but as Paku-san has said, we really were partners.” 20 And of Miyazaki, Takahata would write, “It is through Hayao Miyazaki’s very existence that I have always felt scolded for my sloth-like tendencies, been made to feel guilty, been cornered into doing work, and had something greater than whatever limited talents I might possess squeezed out of me.” 21

“But once Takahata begins, how should I put this… He’s never delivered a film on time or on budget.” 22

Whilst the documentary The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness focuses primarily Miyazaki, Takahata’s presence is still keenly felt. One scene in the film sees Miyazaki deciding on the poster art for his (then) final film, The Wind Rises. Miyazaki makes the decision within five minutes, quickly and efficiently. Producer Suzuki remarks, “He’s fast… unlike the guy you’re about to meet.” At Studio Ghibli 7 (the second facility) we soon find out exactly what Suzuki means. Two hours pass, and there is no word on whether or not a final decision regarding the poster art for Princess Kaguya has been made. Takahata’s ‘sloth-like’ nature is indeed a stark contrast to Miyazaki’s high energy, fast paced work ethic. Whilst Takahata is mostly absent during the The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness, spoken of by friends and colleagues as an elusive and inscrutable figure, the documentary Isao Takahata and His Tale of the Princess Kaguya (Miki Akira and Sato Hidekazu, 2014) closely follows Takahata during the production of his final film. With the film already delayed, key shots unfinished, deadlines pushed back, and no set completion date, at one point Takahata states quite matter-of-factly, “We’re not going to finish.” 23 Although the film was eventually completed, this was not an entirely outlandish nor unexpected statement from the director, and was a concern shared by those around him.

Takahata’s penchant for perfectionism was a trait that made itself known during the early years of his career:

“With Little Norse Prince Valiant, Paku-san really proved that animation has the power to depict the inner mind of humans in depth. However, he also showed how risky and scary it was for a corporation to make him the director of a feature-length film. A production that was supposed to take one year was delayed once, then delayed again—by the time it was finally completed I had gotten married, had my first son, and my son had already celebrated his first birthday” 24

This situation would repeat itself during production of Princess Kaguya. Nishimura was a young man in his late twenties when he became the producer of what would be Takahata’s final film. He started working on the project in 2006, trying to convince Takahata to make one more film, and by the time of the films planned (if optimistic) release date in 2013, he had married and had two children, with his eldest due to begin elementary school. Animation in general can be a slow process, but with Takahata, it was accepted by those who worked with him that that process would become more drawn out than usual. Serving as producer on Only Yesterday, Miyazaki supposed that as the original manga by Okamoto Hotaru and Tone Yuko portrayed the everyday life of a 10-year-old girl, even Takahata might have been able to finish the film on time. This was not to be, as “a twenty-seven-year-old adult protagonist (not in the original story) soon appeared, and began pontificating about farming problems in Japan and helping out with work in the field—and the film quickly started spiralling out of control.” 25 An original end-of-1990 release date became 1991. Takahata’s reputation for never finishing a production on schedule seems to have become a fact begrudgingly accepted by his colleagues. At several points during The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness, Suzuki and Nishimura discuss the delays on Princess Kaguya; at one point, when asked by director and voice actor Anno Hideaki how the film is progressing, Suzuki laughs and replies, “Who knows?”

Little Norse Prince Valiant

Takahata may have been a ‘sloth’, but as Miyazaki writes, “sloths actually have very sharp claws, and they’re hardly peace-loving animals.” 26 Takahata’s unwillingness to compromise on quality often meant that the director was challenging to work with and for. His difficult nature is on display in opening scene of the documentary Isao Takahata and His Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2014) sees Takahata and documentary filmmakers looking for a comfortable place in the studio to conduct an interview. After finding one room too hot and stuffy, and the screening room locked, they sit on some couches in the corridor instead. Takahata slouches in his seat as he asks one of the directors, “What is that? What are you asking?” “Lots of things … Difficult things,” she replies. “I wouldn’t know how to answer.”

Takahata moves to lie down on the couch, frustrated, or tired. They are in the middle of production on Princess Kaguya. The director then asks Takahata what kind of film he is trying to make and he replies, “How would I know? Does any director think about that?”

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya

Tumbling Down the Slope

Even when Takahata wasn’t working on an animation, he would spend time thinking and writing about animation, as well as presenting seminars and lectures on the topic. In an article for Japan Quarterly he ponders why Japan produces so much manga and anime, and traces the roots of these animated moving images to 12th century renzoku-shiki emaki, or “narrative picture scrolls in continuous style”, some of which he would find “far surpass manga and anime in their lively depictions of people’s movements and emotional expressions.” Takahata 27 once said to Suzuki, when pressed about finishing Grave of the Fireflies on time, that making a film is like “a group of people tumbling down a slope. The slope is the scenario. It has been approved by the producer; everyone has agreed to it. All the staff is tumbling down this hill together … But they are all working toward the same goal.” 28 Takahata would echo this view during the making of Princess Kaguya, when he would say, “When everyone thinks it’s theirs, you get a good movie. I made this. The more people who think that, the better it’ll be.” 29

Takahata himself did not draw or animate (although he would sometimes sketch out his ideas). His interest and talent lay in writing and directing, and he would articulate, describe and demonstrate scenarios and actions to his animators in minute detail. 30 It has been suggested, even by Takahata himself, that it is precisely because he did not draw or animate himself that he didn’t feel bound to traditional cel animation that Ghibli in particular became known for. Takahata grew bored with and began to break away from this style with the release of Yamadas in 1999. It performed poorly at the box office, making about one tenth the profit of Ghibli’s previous release, Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke, 31 and left the studio, not set up or used to this style of production, in total chaos. Aesthetically and narratively, it would remain the most ‘un-Ghibli-like’ film the studio would produce, and Takahata’s last film for 14 years until the release of Princess Kaguya.  Unlike the bold colours and clean lines of previous Ghibli films, Yamadas takes up a softer, pencil sketch style and pastel colours, with the painting and colouring done using the computer. Beyond the stylistic departure, narratively Yamadas sets itself apart by telling the story of an average Japanese family in a series of short vignettes, staying close to the original four frame manga by Hisaichi Ishii on which the film is based. Takahata would push his animation even further with the production of Princess Kaguya: “Maybe it is because I don’t draw. When you’re drawing fast, there’s passion. With a carefully finished drawing, that passion gets lost. I think that’s a shame.”

The deceptively simple, evocative animation of Princess Kaguya doesn’t try to hide the so-called “quick and dirty lines” of the initial drawings, but rather emphasises them, seeking to capture a sense of Kaguya as she is in a fleeting moment. For Takahata, this was all a part of his commitment to reality. Depicting this reality came down to the most minor of details, from the way a character might cut into a melon (“I’ve blown it before. This time I don’t want to” 32 or the way a loaf of bread looked in Heidi (which, according to Suzuki, was “minutely researched”). 33  His own experiences during WWII went into the making of Grave of the Fireflies, in the hissing sound of incendiary bombs (he noted that many shows and movies got this sound wrong). 34  When it came to the production of Only Yesterday, Takahata spent so much time and energy researching how safflowers were grown (which included visiting farms and growers in Yamagata) he had basically compiled an entire book on the subject: “The whole procedure, from the picking of the flowers to their processing, it’s all in the film. All the result of Takahata’s research.” 35 But as remarkably detailed as Takahata’s films were, the sense of reality did not rely on details alone. Movement, colour, detail, and story combine to evoke a feeling in the audience of a situation so natural, and an inner world so rich and believable, that we cannot help but empathise with the characters and scenarios. Heidi’s pure and simple happiness, the plight of the tanuki, Taeko’s contemplation, the Yamada family’s misadventures, the deep sorrow of Grave of the Fireflies – the films of Takahata Isao speak to us collectively and individually about past grief, loss, insistent nature of memory, and the joy to be found in living.

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya

“We’ll meet again, I’m sure, in some nostalgic place…” 36

There is a sense of finality in the Princess Kaguya documentary: everyone seems to acknowledge that Princess Kaguya  will probably be Takahata’s final film, even though Takahata himself was ambiguous on that point. 37 In the original folktale, the Princess Kaguya is not of this world, but a being from the moon, and must return to her people at the end of the story. In Takahata’s version of the story her return to the moon symbolises her death. The princess weeps as she bitterly regrets that she has not been able to live her life to the fullest. In one of the final scenes of Princess Kaguya, the princess is reunited with her childhood friend Sutemaru. With limited time remaining on Earth, Sutemaru asks Kaguya to run away with him. He starts to carry her, but she escapes his grasp and declares, “I’ll run too! As fast as I can!” The two run and pick up speed, before leaping off a cliff and taking to the skies. This scene was the only one for which Takahata wrote a detailed concept sheet, hoping with Kaguya’s flight to convey a feeling of the “power of life” and “joy of living”; the scene was accomplished through a combination of sketch-style, water-colour animation and computer composition. Kaguya’s fierce happiness in this moment radiates through the energy of the sketched line and through Hisaishi’s joyous score. But as Kaguya and Sutemaru pass by the full moon, the moment is over. Turning away, Kaguya cries: “Please! Let me stay a little longer! Just a little longer to feel the joy of living in this place!” But her return, her death, is inevitable. As her people come to bring her back to the moon, children sing a rhyme: “Lifetimes come and go in turn.”

Takahata’s life too would inevitably come and go in its turn, and it seems fitting that his final film would be his most ambitious, and would take longest to complete, as he strove to move towards a style of animation that he felt truly expressed the feelings he wanted to convey. It is impossible to measure the impact Takahata has had on the animation landscape, but it is enough, perhaps, to be thankful for films that sought, in various ways, to stress the importance of finding the joy of living. At Takahata’s memorial, Miyazaki ended his eulogy by saying, “55 years ago…I’ll never forget about the first time you talked to me at the bus stop after it rained. Thank you very much.” 38

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya

Selected Filmography

Little Norse Prince Valiant (1968)
Panda! Go Panda! (Short, 1972)
Panda Child: Rainy Day Circus (Short, 1973)
Heidi: Girl of the Alps (TV series, 1974)
3000 Leagues in Search of Mother (TV series, 1976)
Anne of Green Gables (TV series, 1979)
Chie the Brat (1981)
Gauche the Cellist (1982)
Grave of the Fireflies (1988)
Only Yesterday (1991)
Pom Poko (1994)
My Neighbors the Yamadas (1999)
Winter Days (Short, 2003)
The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2013)

Endnotes:

  1. Nishimura Yoshiaki in The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness. Directed by Mami Sunada, 2013
  2. Suzuki Toshio, Mixing Work with Pleasure: My Life at Studio Ghibli (Translated by Roger Speares) (Japan: Japan Publishing Industry Foundation for Culture, 2018), p.190.
  3. Nick Bradshaw, “Takahata Isao: four answers” Sight and Sound, Updated 8 May 2018 https://www.bfi.org.uk/news-opinion/sight-sound-magazine/interviews/takahata-isao-four-answers
  4. Andrew Osmond, “The King and the Mockingbird”, MangaUK, http://www.mangauk.com/the-king-and-the-mockingbird/
  5. Tze-yue G.Hu, Frames of Anime: Culture and Image-building, (HKU: Hong Kong University Press, 2010) p.110
  6. Jonathan Clements, Anime: A History, (London: British Film Institute, 2013), p.149
  7. Takahata in Masami Ito, “Isao Takahata’s stark world of reality” The Japan Times, 12 September 2015 https://www.japantimes.co.jp/culture/2015/09/12/films/isao-takahatas-stark-world-reality/#.W6isbpMzZ-V
  8. The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness. Directed by Mami Sunada, 2013
  9. Takahata in Ito
  10. Philip Brasor, “Japan’s ‘new towns” are finally getting too old” The Japan Times, 1 November 2011, https://www.japantimes.co.jp/community/2011/11/01/how-tos/japans-new-towns-are-finally-getting-too-old/#.W6RcXJMzZ-U
  11. Mchael Dylan Foster, “Haunting Modernity: Tanuki, Trains, and Transformation in Japan” Asian Ethnology, vol.71, no.1 (2012), p. 3-29.
  12. Miyazaki Hayao, Starting Point, 1979-1996, (Translated by Beth Cary and Frederik L. Schodt) (Viz Media, 2009), pp. 202-203
  13. Miyazaki, p.201.
  14. Amid Amidi, “What Hayao Miyazaki’s Eulogy for Isao Takahata” CartoonBrew, 16 May 2018 https://www.cartoonbrew.com/rip/watch-hayao-miyazakis-eulogy-for-isao-takahata-158410.html
  15.  he Kingdom of Dreams and Madness. Directed by Mami Sunada, 2013
  16. Tze-yue G.Hu, p.109.
  17. The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness. Directed by Mami Sunada, 2013
  18. Archival footage, The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness. Directed by Mami Sunada, 2013
  19. Isao Takahata and His Tale of the Princess Kaguya. Directed by Akira Miki and Hidekazu Sato, 2015.
  20. The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness. Directed by Mami Sunada, 2013
  21. Takahata in Starting Point, p.451.
  22. Suzuki Toshio in The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness. Directed by Mami Sunada, 2013
  23. Isao Takahata and His Tale of the Princess Kaguya. Directed by Akira Miki and Hidekazu Sato, 2015.
  24. Miyazaki, p.202.
  25. Miyazaki, p.203.
  26. Miyazaki, p.202.
  27. Takahata Isao, “12th-Century Moving Pictures”, Japan Quarterly, 2001, p.31
  28. Suzuki, p.207.
  29. Isao Takahata and His Tale of the Princess Kaguya. Directed by Akira Miki and Hidekazu Sato, 2015.
  30. Tze-yue G.Hu, “Isao Takahata (1935-2018): A Towering Presence in Japan’s Postwar Animation” animationstudies2.0 7 May 2018 https://blog.animationstudies.org/?p=2463
  31. Mark Schilling “Flashback: My Neighbors the Yamadas – unusual Ghibli animation captures the little pleasures in life” Paste Magazine, 11 March 2017, https://www.scmp.com/magazines/post-magazine/arts-music/article/2077107/flashback-my-neighbors-yamadas-unusual-ghibli
  32. For Takahata, the way Seita cut into a watermelon in Grave of the Fireflies was a big point of contention. He felt it looked weird, “like tofu” (Isao Takahata and His Tale of the Princess Kaguya)
  33. Suzuki, p.199.
  34. Masami Ito, “Isao Takahata’s stark world of reality” The Japan Times, 12 September 2015 https://www.japantimes.co.jp/culture/2015/09/12/films/isao-takahatas-stark-world-reality/#.W6isbpMzZ-V
  35. Suzuki, p.198.
  36. Lyric from “Inochi No Kioku” by Nikaido Kazumi, End Song from The Tale of the Princess Kaguya.
  37. Nick Bradshaw, “Slow on the Draw”, Sight and Sound, April 2015.
  38. Amid Amidi, “What Hayao Miyazaki’s Eulogy for Isao Takahata” CartoonBrew, 16 May 2018 https://www.cartoonbrew.com/rip/watch-hayao-miyazakis-eulogy-for-isao-takahata-158410.html

About The Author

Ruth Richards is a PhD Candidate in the School of Media and Communication at RMIT University. Her research explores how feminist theory of the body and materiality can be taken up by animation theory.