What Made Studio Ghibli Animator Isao Takahata (RIP) a Master: Two Video Essays

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 Yes­ter­dayPom PokoMy 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.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Insane­ly Cute Cat Com­mer­cials from Stu­dio Ghi­b­li, Hayao Miyazaki’s Leg­endary Ani­ma­tion Shop

Soft­ware Used by Hayao Miyazaki’s Ani­ma­tion Stu­dio Becomes Open Source & Free to Down­load

How the Films of Hayao Miyaza­ki Work Their Ani­mat­ed Mag­ic, Explained in 4 Video Essays

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.

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