The death of Isao Takahata at 82 is a great loss for the world of animated movies. One of the co-founders of Studio Ghibli, his work has left an indelible stamp upon the medium. Focusing primarily on directing, writing and producing rather than creating the animation himself, he nonetheless expanded the possibilities of the form, moving it from what was primarily a medium for children’s stories into far more psychologically rich territory. Without him, the animation we watch today would look extremely different indeed.
He was a director interested in bringing together animation and literature into a new medium. Heavily influenced by the French animation The King and the Mockingbird, which he described as achieving “better than anyone else a union between literature and animation,” the French literature graduate applied for a directing job at Toei Animation. There he first met his long-collaborator Hayao Miyazaki while working on his debut feature, The Great Adventure of Horus, Prince of the Sun.
The two filmmakers were the perfect pair. While Miyazaki is seen as the more important of the two directors, without Takahata, its hard to say whether he would’ve been pushed in quite the same way. Takahata was always interested in inserting socio-political themes into his work. This is something that would eventually influence the politics of Miyazaki’s films. After the success of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, which Takahata produced, the two of them formed Studio Ghibli, which went on to be the single most successful animation production company in Japanese history, accounting for nearly half of the 15 highest grossing anime films in the country.
The effects of Studio Ghibli’s movies would be felt all across the world, its arrival coinciding with the Disney Renaissance. While the House of Mouse made some of their best films during this period between 1989-1994, such as The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King, they couldn’t really hold a candle to the sheer brilliance on display over at Studio Ghibli. Thus the rise of their subsidiary Pixar can be seen as directly influenced by the work of Studio Ghibli.
Interestingly enough, Pixar’s famous Braintrust, whereby respective filmmakers would peer review each other’s work, simply utilised a collaborative approach to animation that Takahata was already using on his very first film, allowing Miyazaki a remarkable amount of creative control. Studio Ghibli’s influence can also be seen in the plate-like eyes of the characters in Up, the ecologically engaged themes of Wall-E, and even the steely determination of Remy in Ratatouille. But perhaps the most important influence of Takahata’s films is their emotional realism; grounding every aspect in genuine human emotion.
While the films of Studio Ghibli are well known for their fantastical elements — replete with flying machines, anthropomorphic creatures and huge castles in the sky — what really makes them work is their commitment to emotional realism. Takahata exemplified this aspect of the studio’s work with his first film for the company, Grave of the Fireflies (1998), more indebted to Italian neorealist cinema than anything else. Depicting the story of two siblings trying to survive during the last days of World War Two, the movie simply allows us to observe their struggle in heartbreaking detail. Rarely has animation, before or since, ever been so emotionally powerful, in the process making one reconsider what the medium can be used for. Presented as a double bill alongside Miyazaki’s My Neighbor Totoro, Studio Ghibli announced itself on the world stage in quite some fashion.
Likewise, Only Yesterday (1991) is a film with the simplicity of a short story, which was radical at the time for being so straightforward and for focusing on the interior life of a contemporary unmarried woman in Tokyo. The protagonist, Taeko, takes a trip to the countryside to help with the safflower harvest, in the process rekindling strong memories of her childhood. Different animation techniques, such as light sketches, are used here to represent memories and their infallibility, thus adhering more to the style of graphic novels than traditional animated movies. Animation was rarely used for these purposes before, and paved the way for personal adaptations like Persepolis, Waltz with Bashir, Anamolisa, and of course Studio Ghibli’s own highly underrated Whisper of the Heart.
After Only Yesterday came what is perhaps Takahata’s most overlooked work for the studio, the utterly fascinating and visually rich Pom Poko (1994), depicting life among the tanuki (Japanese raccoon dogs). Based on Japanese folklore, the tanuki are mischievous shape-shifters, this ability allowing them to take on many different forms. What starts off as a lark — featuring raccoon-like creatures with almost comically sized testicles — eventually grows into something much deeper, an ecological poem that asks us to consider the environment around us. Back in the 80s and 90s, Takahata and Miyazaki were already prominent eco-warriors, managing to wrap their message themed movies in surprisingly moving tales. For fans of Nausicaä and Princess Mononoke, Pom Poko is a must watch film.
Takahata was constantly innovating with his movies, something exemplified by the almost avant-garde My Neighbors the Yamadas (1999). While his last three films were still animated and filmed in the traditional Studio Ghibli way, this movie utilised a digital comic-strip style to tell a series of vignettes about the contemporary Yamada family. The result was a slightly divisive movie that didn’t fare as well as his previous efforts, but still showed Takahata to be the more mischievous of the two directors — able to completely reinvent his style in the service of a story. Its remarkable to think that this is the same director who made Grave of the Fireflies.
Fourteen years marked the wait between My Neighbors the Yamadas and The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2013), Takahata’s swan-song. He nonetheless finished his career with a true masterpiece, utilising watercolour animation to create one of the most stunning Studio Ghibli efforts. In many ways it was a fitting final film for the filmmaker — telling a traditional Japanese folktale, but bringing it to life through mesmerising animation techniques.
It was a key demonstration that even up to his final film, Takahata was not content with simply churning out the same old content, but instead constantly innovating to bring new forms of animation to the screen. While his output could be a little hit and miss — for example, My Neighbors the Yamadas is rather slight compared to his other works— Takahata was a visionary director who saw the infinite possibility of animated film and, along with Miyazaki, did as much as Walt Disney to push the medium forward.
Its telling that his last credit includes The Red Turtle, the debut film from the idiosyncratic Dutch animator Michaël Dudok de Wit, which he executive produced. An astonishingly beautiful allegory featuring almost no dialogue, it was the perfect collaboration between the unique animator and Studio Ghibli. In many ways, it was his perfect ending, as even in his 80s, Takahata was still helping to reinvent what animation could do.