Studio Ghibli’s Quiet Storyteller
Isao Takahata is one of the best directors in the business. With a ‘realist’ approach to story, the films and series he makes tend to stray away from his more famous partner. Takahata is no tag along though, making fantastic series and films over 50 years and being a major inspiration to Miyazaki’s works.
While Studio Ghibli, and Hayao Miyazaki, gained international acclaim through the fanciful and folktale style adventure films. Takahata has chosen to focus on the bare bones reality of situations, aiming to push audiences and society in the same way Miyazaki often does. Famous animator Yasuo Ōtsuka said that Miyazaki gets his sense of social responsibility from Takahata and that without Takahata, Miyazaki would probably just be interested in comic book stuff.
The face of Studio Ghibli may always be Miyazaki, but the heart comes from the fantastic Isao Takahata.
Takahata graduated from Tokyo University, in the French Literature course, and cites The King and the Mockingbird as a major inspiration to work in animation. He would begin working as an Assistant Director for Toei Animation in 1960, learning under Yasuo Otsuka who would mentor both Takahata and Miyazaki for most their early career.
Working mainly as assistant or episode director, Takahata’s credits include The Little Warrior, Story of Iron, Oorochi the 8 headed Dragon, and Spooky Kitaru. He would also work on the live action 1963 film, The Biggest Duel in the Underworld, before joining his future studio partner Miyazaki on Ken the Wolf Boy and Hustle Punch. Takahata’s episodes 14 and 72 of Ken the Wolf Boy managed to grab attention and be released together as a film to theaters. This led Otsuka to recommend Takahata to get his first series and credit as lead director.
In 1968, Takahata released his directorial debut and it was a disaster. It failed commercially and most of the production staff, including Takahata, was blamed for the incident. Decades later we can see that it was a stunning change in story from the usual fare, and the first marker of the drastic change anime would undergo in the late 70’s and 80’s. This Euro-centric director was just ahead of his time.
Takahata brought in many elements of story from his French and European studies, especially folk tales like Beowulf and King Arthur. Along with it came his unique realist vision that tried to remove the typical fantasy and proto-animal kids stories, instead focused on the boy Horus and the danger filled adventure before him. The realistic depiction of violence and struggle within the film, mixed with the smoother animation style and new types of vision cuts, made it quite visceral to audiences at the time.
Otsuka and Miyazaki would work on the animation and storyboard together, creating massive technological and stylistic leaps from the Astro Boy era. Most famous for the Otsuka animated scene fighting the Pike, that would be the blueprint for Miyazaki’s later Ghibli films.
Due to Horus’ commercial failure, Takahata would be relegated back to an episode director on the series Furious Ataro, Secrets of Akko-Chan, and Apache Baseball Team. Eventually, Takahata and Miyazaki would leave Toei Animation in 1971.
Working on Lupin III, Takahata would act in a semi-producer role on early episodes, then as co-director with Miyazaki on episodes 13-23. Miyazaki would return later for the second instalment and film of Lupin, but Takahata would be busy with World Masterpiece Theater.
Miyazaki and Takahata traveled to Europe to ask for the rights to produce a planned Pippi Longstockings anime, but were rejected by its creator Astrid Lindgren. Miyazaki would rewrite, and Takahata would direct, the adapted story into two Panda Go Panda shorts.
Then Takahata would direct his second major project, with Miyazaki on storyboard, based on a more traditional samurai period piece. Not much info on the series remains, but the show was noted for maintaining a lot of the Horus style animation, with smooth swings and paced action. He would also direct 2 episodes of Isamu the Cowboy in similar fashion.
The World’s Storyteller
Isao Takahata had built quite a reputation around the industry for his Euro styled story Horus, the Pippi Longstocking adaption Go Panda Go, and the paced movement of his direction. Nippon Animation would request Takahata come on to develop series for the Calpis Comic Theater, a collection of Western classical tales, that was a perfect fit.
Based on the novel Heidi by Swiss author Johanna Spyri, the series focused on the beautiful landscapes and life affirming adventures of the small cast. Heidi’s journey through the Swiss countryside, love of friends and family, and the meaning of having a home, struck a chord within Japan. The series had a massive following that led to expansion and rebranding of the organization to Calpis Children Theater and eventually Family Theater.
The series maintains popularity today, with the Swiss Alps being a major travel destination for Japan and constant references to the series in current anime. It also has a large following in South Africa, Italy, and Germany, that continue today.
Takahata’s second show with Masterpiece Theater was another huge success. Based on the novel Heart by Edmondo De Amicis, the series follows a boy on a journey to find his mother. His travels take him across the world, from Italy to Brazil and back again. Throughout the show, and much like Heidi, Takahata encouraged his animators to fully express the beauty of the countries depicted.
The series is known by multiple names from Marco in Europe, to 3000 Leagues in America, and From the Appenines to the Andes in South America. Again, much like Heidi, the show didn’t take off in the English translation but had a massive success in South America, Middle East, and Africa. Marco was ranked in the Top 100 Animations by TV Asahi, and joined Heidi as classic series known in every home of Japan.
Miyazaki could be found animating these and other series within the group, before the two artists would reunite to make a follow up to Horus and the first ‘Ghibli formula’ series. Future Boy Conan was Miyazaki’s real launch as a director, and shows the formula that would later make Studio Ghibli famous. Takahata would work on storyboard, alongside Tomino, and direct later episodes.
From 1974 to 1978, Western folk tales came to every family on Sunday, making Takahata a household name that stood as one of the most respected storytellers in Japan. In 1979, they would rebrand to World Masterpiece Theater and ask Takahata to make their first official series.
Takahata had adapted Marco and Heidi, removing various Christian iconography and changing or adding to the story in places. For Anne of Green Gables, he made an effort to keep it true to the original novel by Lucy Maud Montgomery. Miyazaki would remark that Anne was the first series he took note of Takahata’s heavy use of character acting. This became somewhat of a signature of Takahata’s films.
The series was again a success, and marked the first time Yoshifumi Kondo joined Takahata. Kondo would go on to animate many Ghibli films with Takahata and be the first director other than the duo to make a Ghibli film, Whisper of the Heart.
Takahata joined TMS Entertainment in 1980, the studio producing Miyazaki’s Lupin film, and begin to tell stories more focused on Japan.
The first release was Chie The Brat, which expanded into a full TV series. Initially the idea was rejected by Miyazaki, then again by Takahata but after a visit to where the manga was based in Osaka he accepted the offer. The story has since become an icon of the Kansai region of Japan, and is often considered Osaka’s unofficial mascot.
Takahata would travel to the Disney Studio to open relations to the American markets and began production on a film called Little Nemo. Due to production issues, Takahata would leave the company before the project finished, and joined Miyazaki to found Studio Ghibli.
Since 1984, Takahata has been the co-founder for Studio Ghibli alongside Miyazaki. During this time, he worked often as a producer to Miyazaki’s works, created a string of marvelous films, and made some minor works outside the studio that are really interesting if you can track them down.
Takahata would work as producer and storyboard on Miyazaki’s films Nausicaa: Tales of the Valley of the Wind and Castle in the Sky. He would also work as the Music Producer for Kiki’s Delivery Service in 89.
He would make an NHK Documentary called The Story of Yanagawa’s Canals in 87. A village that had restored its olden water canals, renewing the old architecture, reclaiming the community identity, and expanding tourism for the region.
In 2003 he helped write and produce Winter Days. Based the work of poet Matsuo Basho, Takahata worked to adapt the haiku and gather international animators for the project. The creation of the film followed the traditional collaborative nature of the source material, with the visuals for each of the 36 stanzas independently created by 35 different animators.
Takahata would also animate one of the stanza, number 24 “I can’t solve sorrow’s mystery a cuckoo; A long night of consuming an urn of Autumn water.”
During production of My Neighbor Totoro, producers worried that the story would not gain traction compared to the adventure films and asked Takahata to make a joining film for a double feature.
Fireflies was released as a double feature with Totoro, two very different but uniquely challenging films. Each would use animation to tell stories that were considered difficult, if impossible, to sell. Totoro went on to become iconic to Japan, but Takahata has said that he regrets combining the films. People left the film considering Fireflies to be very depressing and sad, which is true, but it was not the core message Takahata wished to convey.
“It wasn’t my intention to give people the catharsis of crying.”
“I intended to depict the boy in Grave as a contemporary boy, rather than a boy in that time. He doesn’t bear with hardships… As a result, his life becomes harder. Such a feeling is closer to the one held by today’s kids. I made the movie by thinking what would happen if a kid today was suddenly sent to that time through time machine.”
“I think that today we can hardly watch a natural death. For instance, people generally die in a hospital nowadays. I’d call it a scientific death. All I wished to find, beyond sadness, it is a straighter way to show things.”
To call this film “Sadness: The Animation” is to undersell the soul crushing nature of the story. Takahata made a harrowing journey that explores war and its destruction, the breaking of families, the sundering of human compassion, and the distance of people. The ideal was to portray the love of family and deep connection to each other that requires no civility, but airing after the hopeful and childlike Totoro muddled the message on release. Even now, the film is often considered an ‘anti-war’ film despite Takahata’s comments otherwise.
“Today, the bonds among family members and the sense of community among neighbors have been weakened. Instead, we are protected by the several layers of social protection/control. … Even if one tries to escape from human relationships and tries to live alone with his sister, how many boys, or people, can keep sustaining their sisters as long as Seita did?”
The film is beautiful, dark, and emits a glow of subdued energy that is only matched in other masterpiece films like Oshii’s Angel’s Egg. Takahata offers a testament to his ideal of human compassion and the love of true family being the central focus and salvation of humanity, in opposition of war and modern societies distance between people.
Due to licensing, the film wasn’t released through the Disney-Ghibli partnership that Totoro and most of Miyazaki’s films benefit from. This led to a less wide fan base, but Grave of the Fireflies is a masterpiece film, listed on almost every ‘Top Movies’ list there is. A truly great film that everyone must experience, just keep the tissue handy.
Omohide Poro Poro, also known as Only Yesterday or my prefered translation Memories Like Falling Raindrops, Takahata’s second Ghibli film would follow Grave of the Fireflies more mature styled themes. The film featured a more nostalgic and peaceful storyline, mixed with Ghibli’s signature female leads and astounding landscapes.
The film follows Taeko, a 27 year old woman from the city, returning to the countryside and falling in love with the peaceful balance of humanity and nature. A series of impressionist childhood vignettes are used to jump between the current and past memories of our main character.
Takahata created an assault of nostalgia that explores tensions of family conflict, the anxieties of on-coming puberty, and the rush of the childhood crush. Everything in the film is driven from his signature character acting, with uplifting surreal periods to add levity.
Disney would reject the film for release to the West, citing the mention of female puberty and menstrual cycles as too taboo. Disney held the rights until a Blu-Ray release in 2012, 20 years after its creation.
In 1994, Takahata wrote and directed his first fully original story. The film would maintain the surreal, humbling, and emotionally true narrative that Takahata was famous for. Miyazaki would suggest the film revolve around Tanuki, and the story focused on the nature and eco-friendly vision of the two Ghibli directors. It would suffer the same fate as other Takahata films, with Disney rejecting the film based on its ‘eco-terrorism’ narrative. It would finally get released in 2005, 11 years after it was made.
“I wanted the viewer to look from the point of view of the animals and try to make us perceive how our world appears to us seen from the outside. However, the terrorist label does not disturb me. … terrorism was sometimes a mean of asking attention of the established society. This state of mind existed until in the seventies. Terrorism sometimes had the capacity to make the world or people reflect on their condition.”
Pom Poko follows a clan of Tanuki (a wild dog that resembles a raccoon) that are in battle against the humans. Expansion of human settlement, mixed with the destruction of their habitat, leads the clan to fight back. Some plead their case through news casts, others fight directly, and some take an infamous boat ride. No matter the action, the core ideal of Takahata’s wish for nature and harmony comes through beautifully.
The film has a more light design to add to the comedic and fanciful portions of the film. Takahata doesn’t miss a step though, Pom Poko is wonderfully animated and was perhaps the best Ghibli animation at the time. Being a major fan of folk lore and tradition, Takahata takes time to point out these missing pieces of our humanity in a fantastic parade sequence that also features major Ghibli characters.
The film is based on a serial manga of the same name, and features the core of Takahata’s ideal of simple lives with close families. Lessons and adventures are held within short vignettes that are comedic and simple. Due to the episodic nature, the film is perhaps better seen in portions versus one sitting. One sitting or multiple, Takahata’s film is wonderfully expressive and effective in delivering the story of simple pleasures.
Yamadas was a major break in the ‘Ghibli style’ of character design and animation. Takahata would make Studio Ghibli’s first fully digital film in order to produce a watercolor style that lets the world wobble in a fluid motion with the characters. It was quite impressive on release, but is a clear indicator of plans for Takahata’s next (possibly last) film.
Princess Kaguya was planned as a double feature with Miyazaki’s Wind Rises, a fitting recreation of their Grave/Totoro feature. It also looks to be Takahata’s last feature film, though he wavers on that fact. What a send off though, Princess Kaguya is majestic and beautiful in a way like no other Ghibli film before.
Based on the 10th Century Japanese folktale, and considered the country’s first prose narrative, The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter. A farmer finds a magical girl within the bamboo forest and she turns into a child for the aged couple. The film follows the girl as she enjoys life and struggles against various social constructs to find bliss. A seminal tale of one’s life, it covers the ebbs and flows, drama and joy, and eventual but sudden end.
Takahata often talked of the art of the film and what led to this highly unique look. During production of Yamada’s and again Kaguya, he talked about an audience ‘filling in’ the white space with their imagination. This works to enhance the stunning movement and acting faces of each character, while drawing you to imagine the scene in a real setting. The audience could ‘look through’ the sketches to see the full reality of the world inhabited by the Princess Kaguya. Takahata envisioned an artist sketching the story as it unfolds before him, scratching the scenes into existence before the moment passes, sometimes struggling to keep up.
Takahata’s career makes an interesting line of progression to this masterpiece. Beginning with the understated flash of Horus that turned anime towards character studies. His years of quiet folktale adaptations that featured in every house across the 70’s. Chie the Brat, Grave of the Fireflies, and Only Yesterday explored the struggles that youth face and can be seen in various stages of the film. Finally, Yamada’s watercolor style and Winter Days experimental animations set the groundwork for the animation. The end result is a film that is moving and surreal, while staying emotional and understated. A masterpiece to end a Master Director’s career.
Forever in the shadow of his partner director, Isao Takahata is a Master Director that stands well above the crowd. His career spans 50 years featuring a chain of beloved series, masterpiece films, and experimental animation. Take some time to experience this great director’s emotional and beautiful work. Isao Takahata is one of Japan’s greatest story tellers and a perfect partner to Hayao Miyazaki. A man of vision and moral, to stand beside the man of creativity and unique worlds, the perfect combination.