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Japan would not be the animation powerhouse it is today without Isao Takahata. The co-founder of Studio Ghibli defined the Japanese anime style and guided its evolution through his poignant, beautiful and unflinching work. His films tackled war, environmentalism, and death with a compassion and tenderness rarely seen in animation at the time. Takahata died on April 5. Yet, his vivacious, free-flowing and occasionally brutally realistic style lives on in the nine feature films he wrote and directed.
Takahata never delivered a film on time or on budget while working at Studio Ghibli. His last film, 2013’s The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, took seven years to complete. Around Studio Ghibli he was known for his lackadaisical approach to his films. He took his time and it showed. Despite working in animation for more than fifty years Takahata never drew a single frame compared to his Ghibli co-founder Hayao Miyazaki who personally redrew 2,000 frames for Princess Mononoke.
Both Takahata and Miyazaki founded Studio Ghibli after the runaway success of Miyazaki’s post-apocalyptic epic Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind in 1984. However, it was in 1988 that the studio truly came into its own. Miyazaki directed the cuddly, spiritual fable My Neighbour Totoro while Takahata completed his most personal film Grave of the Fireflies. Both were released together as a double bill and depending on the order audiences either left in warm relief or in floods of tears.
Grave of the Fireflies is set in the closing days of World War II. It focuses on a young boy, Seita, and his sister, Setsuko, as their home town is bombed to rubble around them. Things only get worse from there. Takahata drew on his own experiences as a survivor of American bombing runs for the film. Eventually fleeing the town Seita and Setsuko, hide in a cave in the hills where starvation and illness quickly take hold.
For a film about children, the drama pulls no punches. Devastating burns, sores resulting from starvation and abject human cruelty are all put front and centre. The movie ends as the spirits of Seita and Setsuko look out over modern Japan, glad how no conflict has touched their country’s shores since.
Grave of the Fireflies is perhaps Takahata’s most realistic film aside from the live action documentary he did on canals directly after. From 1991 onwards, the director’s films took on a more lyrical, mystical quality. Only Yesterday was released in 1991 and remains to my mind not only his best film but the best Ghibli film.
Following a young woman on holidays to the countryside Only Yesterday reflects on her childhood in an almost dreamlike style. Memories of the past phase in and out of the present like mist in this soft melodrama. Elsewhere the shot of dawn breaking over a field of sunflowers is heart-breaking in its simplistic beauty. Even the mere memory of the ending is a moment that still brings tears to my eyes. I can’t say that about any other film.
From there Takahata made a film that staunchly expressed his fierce environmentalism. Pom Poko is a strange film but no less important than any other Ghibli work. A tribe of tanuki or Japanese raccoon-dogs attempt to stop humans encroaching on their land and building on it. Using the magic power of their stretchy testicles the tanuki do their best against the unstoppable tide of human destruction. Eventually there remains the barest hint of the verdant greenery that was there before. Such is the way of Takahata’s films. Change, no matter how big or small, is unstoppable.
After Pom Poko there came My Neighbours the Yamadas known to many as the Studio Ghibli movie that looked like nothing else the studio had produced. Following a working-class family, the Yamadas in their daily life, the film is comprised of sketches and vignettes that show how hard and rewarding family life can be. It’s also the film that ground Studio Ghibli to a halt. The digital animation process was new to Ghibli and it slowed the studio down. It was Spirited Away, the studio’s most successful film, that brought Studio Ghibli out of its funk.
Seven years passed until eventually Takahata began what would become his final film. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is lovingly detailed. Every frame is weighed down with the love and care that went into the film’s seven-year production. Few other animated films can boast the textured watercolour style so reminiscent of thin paper and woodcut prints. Despite all its fantasy the film is basically about the struggles of growing up and responsibility. Appropriately enough the film ends with its main character passing on from this world.
Throughout his work Takahata always sought to portray the cyclical nature of life. The river keeps flowing, the sun keeps setting and the grass keeps growing. When a character dies in a Takahata film they merely pass on to the next stage of their journey. It’s a kind of spirituality that’s comforting if not wholly perfect. Takahata always refused to tie off the neat little bows that ended so many of his co-founder’s films. A great deal of his features end tragically but on the flip side of that is the new beginning presented. There is no easy ending in Takahata’s films because life’s not easy and art shouldn’t seek to comfort us just because it’s animated. With Takahata gone only his art remains but it will likely last as long as there is life to be lived.
There are lines in the theme song for Only Yesterday that I’ll leave you with. They express Takahata’s methods and attitudes and the beauty inherent within them far better than this thousand-word feature ever could.
“Just remember in the winter far beneath the bitter snows,
Lies the seed, that with the sun’s love,
In the Spring becomes the Rose.”