Isao Takahata sat in the passenger’s side of a car with only one thing looming on his mind. He was in the middle of production of his latest film, his first in nearly fourteen years, and a film crew was documenting the filmmaker’s process – resulting in the 2013 documentary, Isao Takahata and his Tale of the Princess Kaguya. He was way over budget and way overschedule but that wasn’t what was bothering him. What kept him up at night was just one single scene. It was a simple dialogue scene between two characters. Nothing too complicated. There were no intricate backgrounds to draw nor any grand set-pieces to animate. But in the scene, one character had to pick up a watermelon and cut it. It added nothing to the overall plot but this was where Takahata’s troubles began.
“I’ve blown it before. This time, I don’t want to,” he lamented to his producer.
“When?” his producer replied.
“The watermelon scene in Grave of the Fireflies. The cutting looks weird. It looks life tofu…” he sighed.
This bothered him so much that he spent a whole production day to address it, sending his producers into a frenzy. Takahata had his entire animation team take knives and cut open melons all day. He even put a blade to a bagel to show what exactly was bothering him about cutting food in animation.
“If you’re going to cut this, you don’t just set the knife on it…” Takahata showed one of his chief animators as he set the knife on top of the bagel. “You put the blade in like this,” he said putting the blade at a slight upward angle.
Such a detail is largely unimportant in an animated film, one could say. There are more important aspects to focus on such as story, character designs, or meeting strict deadlines. But Takahata did not think in broad strokes. He thought in small pieces that unify a whole. And to him, an emphasis on realism was what made certain elements such as story or character more impactful to an audience.
And so, when one watches the watermelon scene in The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, they become overwhelmed with emotion as a watermelon is intricately cut for the titular character. It’s one of the most genuine gestures of love and respect ever seen in an animated film. In this small moment, we are no longer seeing lines drawn on screen. We are seeing real characters with realistic problems living in a world not too far from ours. And Takahata would not have achieved this if he had not spent an entire day focusing on cutting a watermelon.
This was the genius of Isao Takahata at work.
The Great Sloth
If there is one quote that summed up Takahata, it has to be the one attributed by his long time co-worker Hayao Miyazaki:
“He is the descendant of a giant sloth…”
It was easy to see this when one saw him. Takahata was tall and baby-faced. He tended to move slower than everyone else (figuratively and literally). He was immensely patient, never rushing even the most time constrained tasks. He was often found wandering around in the wilderness in deep thought, sometimes for hours on end, only to be found back at the studio taking a nap on a couch with a lit cigarette still burning in his hand.
In many ways, Takahata acted exactly like his films: soft, reflexive, and heartfelt. His body of work has been universally praised for its realism and thought-provoking themes. He released nine feature films during his lifetime and only five of those were with Studio Ghibli. However, each film showed a maturation into his style not seen by any filmmaker, animation or otherwise.
He was the only animation filmmaker of his time who dared to tackle subjects such as the regrets of World War II, feminism, and the questioning of traditionalist Japanese values through animation. Yet, along with his groundbreaking themes was his unique animation style. He employed slow pacing, story-book aesthetics, and heavily nuanced emotions from his characters. There was always a poetic quality to his work, which is not surprising since Takahata graduated in French literature. This poetic nature made his films feel different than anything else Ghibli made. His worlds were rarely fantastical. His plots were character driven pieces that unfolded organically, moving at a meticulous (at times, segmented) pace. His characters were flawed individuals whose emotions were understated and rarely manipulated.
All these qualities can be found all the way back to his debut film, Horus: Prince of the Sun (1968) released by Toei Pictures. Horus showcased his emerging talent as a director by showcasing prototypes of what would be his hallmarks: mature storytelling, social commentary, and most importantly, stark realism. Takahata’s sense of emotional realism and attention to detail elevated this film above the standard action-adventure fair that Toei was known for at the time.
This would only be a taste of what is to come in Takahata’s esteemed career.
Bridging a Gap
After Horus, Takahata left Toei to strictly work in episodic television for nearly a decade. He worked on acclaimed shows such as Lupin III, Anne of Green Gables, Heidi: Girl of the Alps, 3000 Leagues In Search of Mother, and Future Boy Conan. During this time, he also collaborated with Miyazaki to create Panda, Go Panda! (1972), a series of two short children’s films that would set the standard for their works at Studio Ghibli. Takahata then released two unique adaptations of the mangas Gauche the Cellist (1982) and Jarinko Chie (1981).
After his long period in television, Takahata took a curveball in 1987 by releasing a three hour live-action documentary about the canal systems in Yanagawa. Utilising only minimal animation, The Story of Yanagawa’s Canals is possibly the most esoteric film in the Ghibli canon. The expansive documentary was overshadowed by two of Miyazaki’s grand fantastical epics, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind and Castle in the Sky. Yanagawa’s Canals showed the difference between the two filmmakers which would define their whole careers. While Miyazaki used animation to create worlds which didn’t exist, Takahata used animation to reflect the world we live in.
This idea of using animation as a mirror to society would be ever so present in Takahata’s official debut with Ghibli, a heart-wrenching World War II drama which would become his most iconic film.
The Cycle of Life and Death
Grave of the Fireflies (1988) is Takahata’s most cherished work and propelled him to acclaim not only in Japan, but also in the West.
At the time, influential film critic Roger Ebert declared Takahata’s film a masterwork of its genre, calling the film “an emotional experience so powerful that it forces a rethinking of animation”.
“[It is] a powerful dramatic film that happens to be animated, and I know what the critic Ernest Rister means when he compares it to ‘Schindler’s List’ and says, ‘It is the most profoundly human animated film I’ve ever seen…’”
“Profoundly human” is an adequate summation of the film. Fireflies has the reputation of being one of the most devastating films ever made, which is impressive considering it is entirely animated. But what made the film as devastating as it was can be attributed to Takahata’s sense of stark realism. Much like in his debut film Horus, the emotions in Fireflies are never over-done like in most typical animated films. They are much more subtle and graceful as the film progresses.
The film follows two siblings, Seita and Setsuko, who much survive through the destruction of post-World War II Japan. There is a scene in the middle of the film where Seita cries in front of his sister after trying to steal food for them. It is the only moment in which we see Seita express his feelings on the distraught situation they are in. Before and after this moment, Seita’s emotions toward his sister remain concealed. He does not react the same when he learns Japan had surrendered the war, when his own aunt kicks him and Setsuko out into the cold, or even when it is revealed Setsuko has radiation poisoning from the atomic bombs. In a single long shot, we see Seita break down and hold his sister tight after she had to witness him steal food for her. It is in this moment where we see Seita as a human being and not the tough caretaker he attempts to bet.
Instead of relying on exaggerated emotions, the powerful relationship between Seita and Setsuko which carries the film is shown visually through candy tins, fireflies, and the actions of its characters. There is nothing fantastical about Grave of the Fireflies, which made it one of Takahata’s most realistic outings. His next film with Studio Ghibli was equally realistic but also is also mashed with formalist sensibilities.
The Art of Life
Only Yesterday (1991) took Takahata’s sense of humanistic realism to new heights while carefully blending it with brief moments of expressionism. Only Yesterday follows a simple plot concerning a woman named Takeo who moves from the city to the countryside to discover herself. All the while, she has multiple flashbacks which show her dysfunctional childhood and the events which lead up to her being the woman she is today. With this premise, Takahata explored topics that were not commonly found in animation at that time such as feminism and maturity. He represents these themes through the film’s multiple flashbacks and how they clash with Taeko’s modern day actions.
Like in Fireflies, Takahata never overplays human emotions. However, he does use animation in more clever ways. For example, there is one scene during the flashbacks where our main character, Taeko, realises that a boy has a crush on her. She then instantly starts flying as the background disappears into solid watercolors as romantic music sweeps. Later, we cut to see Taeko in the present, bursting into laughter over her old crush. Her laughter then slowly dies down into serious contemplation about her future and the choices she made as a child. It’s an outstanding display of Takahata’s style as the filmmaker opted to use two widely different animation styles to heighten two drastically different emotional moments.
With Only Yesterday, we see Takahata solidifying a unique style which would carry over to his last three films. In particular, we also would see it in what can be considered Takahata’s most politically charged film…
Can’t You Play With Me Somehow?
Pom Poko (1994) is more than just an environmental tale with cute talking animals. It is a strong character-based ensemble piece under Takahata’s realistic lens. The film follows a predictable set up akin to similar animated films like Pixar’s A Bug’s Life (1998) whereby a group of racoons – or tanuki – set out to save their home from deforestation. Unlike other animated features like it, Takahata did not play to the plot conventions of a story such as this would usually demands. In fact, Pom Poko is a much more symbolic representation of a ‘save the trees’ type story. What results is a film much more nuanced than one could ever expect.
In the film, we see the tanuki re-learning their ancient ways of shapeshifting in an attempt to disguise as humans and stage a plot to foil the humans’ plot to bulldoze their forest. Presented like an animated “nature documentary”, Takahata’s camera simply observed these characters as they plot, scheme, and survive. Because of this, it makes the characters feel more human. Although the film focuses on talking tanuki, their emotions and struggles feel real thanks to Takahata’s dedication to mature characters and emphasis on emotional realism. And much like in Grave of the Fireflies, he lets his characters be who they are rather than have them be mouthpieces for hot-button issues or ploys in a bigger plot.
Where Pom Poko lacks in a strong plot, it makes up for in character and emotional resonance. It is an environmentalist film with more layers than what it puts on. Through animation, Takahata was able to explore simple themes in a more complex way. He would continue this trend in his next film, trading environmentalism with something that hit closer to home.
Que Sera, Sera
My Neighbors The Yamadas (1999) may be Studio Ghibli’s most experimental work. It is also Takahata’s most grounded film. It follows no plot and consists mainly of short vignettes united by a common theme of family. The segments range from situational comedy to poignant commentaries on family values in Japan. Even the animation style, heavily simplistic storybook designs with sparse backgrounds, is outside the Ghibli norm. But perhaps one of the most notable things about Yamadas is that there are no fantasy elements or cartoonish slapstick we typically associate ‘family-oriented’ animated films with. What results is a deeply relatable film that utilises simplicity and minimalism to make a point.
Takahata tagged each vignette with a haiku by one of his favorite poets, Basho. This helped elevate even the most simplest of scenes into something more meaningful. There is one moment where Takashi, the father character, comes home extremely drunk. When he demands food from his wife, Matsuko, he says he does not want any bananas. Matsuko gives him a banana anyway. After a while, the tired and drunk Takashi grabs the banana and slowly peels it. Closing this segment, these words come on screen:
“Turn toward me, I’m lonely too. The autumn dusk.” – Basho
This is the most powerful aspect of My Neighbor the Yamadas. It is a family movie like no other simply because it’s just about family. And through a starkly minimalist and realistic style, Takahata was able to put this family front and center.
After the production of Yamadas, Takahata took an extended break from filmmaking. He only came out once in 2003 to make a single one-minute segment for a collective film project (Segment 28 of Winter Days). It wasn’t until 2008 where he announced his next feature film, an adaptation of a popular Japanese folk tale. What many did not know was that this film would be the most unique film in the Ghibli filmography.
Once Upon a Dream
A whole fourteen years would pass between Yamadas and the the release of The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2013). Despite being off the director’s chair for that long, Takahata never lost his touch. Kaguya was his most fantastical outing as a director, featuring a girl born from a bamboo stalk, moon people, and a sub-plot involving ancient Japanese myths. However, Takahata captured these fantastic elements with a stark neo-realistic lens. For a fairy tale adaptation, it is presented as a neorealist drama filled with complex emotions in a way only Takahata could.
In one memorable scene, Kaguya overhears a conversation in which she is ridiculed at a celebration. Overcome with anger and grief, she runs away from her palace and heads to the wilderness. The art style changes from colorful storybook lines to gritty unfinished lines, reflecting how Kaguya feels in the moment. This powerful moment again represented Takahata’s unique ability to represent emotions visually on screen without having to rely on cliche animation techniques, such as exaggerated facial expressions. While his characters are reserved in their emotions, Takahata let their actions and the environment they inhabit reflect how they feel, a notable trait found in all of his previous works.
Kaguya proves to be the ultimate conglomeration of Takahata’s artistry. There is a feeling of sobriety that everything he had made had led to this. And much like in Grave of the Fireflies, Kaguya ends on a reflective note. There is a sense that when all is said and done, we will look back at the story of Kaguya’s life and learn from it.
It is a fitting final bow for Takahata’s final film.
The Great Power of Lines Drawn on Paper
Isao Takahata passed away on April 5, this year after losing his battle with lung cancer. Multiple tributes by a wide range of filmmakers around the world have been made in his honor. From Cartoon Saloon in Europe (The Secret of Kells, Song of the Sea) to Rian Johnson from America (Brick, Star Wars: The Last Jedi) and Chinese animators such as Dong Dake (Legend of a Rabbit) and Tian Xiaopeng (Monkey King), Takahata’s influence in the world of animation was subtle but pervasive. Simply put, without Takahata we would not have Miyazaki, we would not have Ghibli, and we would not have Japanese animation as we know it today.
A common note of Takahata’s work is the simple fact that his films are too realistic to be animated and would work just as well in live-action. However, this was where the beauty of Takahata really shined. Through animation, Takahata was able to touch the human soul like no other filmmaker. He proved that animation did not have to constantly take you out of your world but instead could allow you to re-think and appreciate the one you’re in. This is why when we see moments such as Taeko coming to terms with herself at the end of Only Yesterday, the ‘sea of life’ metaphor in Yamadas, and Kaguya flying off with Sutemaru in Princess Kaguya, we feel a sweeping range of emotions. Takahata used animation to paint humanity, which is something live-action could never achieve.
This feature is accompanied by original artwork produced by Melbourne artist Rachel Tan exclusively for this tribute to the late Isao Takahata. For more of Rachel’s work, follow her on Instagram (@tsunderachel) and check out her official website.