Among the many acclaimed animated films of Studio Ghibli — and indeed among recent Japanese animated films in general — those directed by the outspoken, oft-retiring-and-returning Hayao Miyazaki tend to get the most attention. But even casual viewers overlook the work of the late Isao Takahata (1935-2018), the older animator formerly of Toei with whom Miyazaki founded the studio in 1985, at their peril. Though he most often played the role of producer at Ghibli, he also directed several of its films, first and most memorably 1988’s Grave of the Fireflies, the story of an orphaned brother and sister’s struggle for survival at the very end of the Second World War.
“Grave of the Fireflies is an emotional experience so powerful that it forces a rethinking of animation,” wrote Roger Ebert in 2000, adding the picture to his “Great Movies” canon. “When anime fans say how good the film is, nobody takes them seriously. [ … ] Yes, it’s a cartoon, and the kids have eyes like saucers, but it belongs on any list of the greatest war films ever made.”
No Western critic would frame it quite the same way now, with the implicit disclaimer about the nature of Japanese animation, thanks in no small part to what animators like Takahata have done to show the entire world the true potential of their medium since.
The quarter-century after Grave of the Fireflies saw Takahata direct four more features, Only Yesterday, Pom Poko, My Neighbors the Yamadas, and his visually unconventional, long-in-the-making final work The Tale of Princess Kaguya. You can get a sense of Takahata’s distinctive sensibilities and sensitivities as an animation director in the Royal Ocean Film Society video essay “Isao Takahata: The Other Master” at the top of the post. It gets into the questions of why Takahata chose to tell essentially realistic, drawn-from-life stories in a form most know for its way with the fantastical, and how the visual exaggerations in his films somehow imbue them with a more solid feel of reality.
Just above, “Isao Takahata Doesn’t Get Enough Respect (A Retrospective),” by Youtuber Stevem, goes in other directions, exploring the director’s technique as well as his career, life, and personality, drawing not just from his work with Ghibli but the considerable amount he did before the studio’s foundation as well. Still, Grave of the Fireflies may well remain most filmgoers’ gateway into his filmography for the foreseeable future, not least because of its still-refreshing “anti-Hollywood” qualities. “Hollywood will have you believe that heroes are needed when times are tough,” says writer on Japanese culture Roland Kelts in a recent BBC piece on the movie. “Isao Takahata shows us the humble opposite, that when times are tough what you need most is humility, patience and self-restraint. That’s how one survives.”
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.