• [The Daily] Isao Takahata, 1935–2018

    By David Hudson

    Takahata04052018_large


    “Isao Takahata, who co-founded Studio Ghibli with Hayao Miyazaki in 1985, has died at eighty-two, according to Yahoo! Japan.Michael Nordine for IndieWire: “Takahata was a revered director in his own right, helming such animated classics as Grave of the Fireflies [1988], Only Yesterday [1991], and Pom Poko [1994]; he most recently directed The Tale of the Princess Kaguya [2013], which received near-universal praise an Academy Award nomination for Best Animated Feature.”

    “Though you’d be hard-pressed to get him to admit it, Japanese animator Isao Takahata is one of the most influential artists in the medium, alongside his longtime collaborator and Studio Ghibli co-founder Hayao Miyazaki,” wrote Terry Flores at the top of an interview for Variety in 2016. “Because Hayao Miyazaki’s various films were so alluring,” Takahata told Flores, “I thought I would realize in my animation films a different appeal and a different expression from what was in his works. In that regard, I suppose you could say I have been greatly influenced by his work. We also share our attitudes toward our love for the nature immediately around us and our political beliefs of anti-nuclear weaponry and anti-nuclear power.”

    “Life in Japan was in tune with nature until the modern age,” Takahata told Matt Kamen in Wired in 2015. “A sustainable system was in place for people to receive the fruits of nature while they worked to allow nature to survive in a viable way. All life on Earth is cyclical—birth, growth, death, and revival . . . I consider this to be the basis for everything.”

    “It comes as little surprise that Isao Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies remains as vital and potent as it was nearly a quarter of a century after its premiere in Japan,” Chris Cabin wrote for Slant in 2012. “This wrenching yet largely unsentimental anime depicts the “collateral damage” of the United States’ firebombing of Japan in the waning years of World War II, but its ultimate aim is a universal understanding of the often unreported toll of warfare.” And in 2000, Roger Ebert wrote: “Grave of the Fireflies is an emotional experience so powerful that it forces a rethinking of animation.”

    “The protagonist of Only Yesterday is Taeko, a twentysomething career office-worker in modern (well, 1991) Tokyo, who takes a holiday to visit the countryside of her youth, which in turn triggers long-buried memories of Taeko’s turbulent teenage years,” wrote Marc Savlov in the Austin Chronicle in 2016. “As in most other films from Studio Ghibli, there’s a none-too-subtle relationship between the human characters and the natural world outside of the towering Tokyo cityscape. And, of course, there’s also Studio Ghibli’s other recurring theme: that of a strong female character confronting (and usually overcoming) societal obstacles—in this case, the dull toil of the big-city office slog versus all that should have been and may yet well be.”

    “For all its goodhearted cheer,” wrote Tasha Robinson at the A.V. Club in 2005, “Pom Poko is a glum indictment of modern Japan's disjunction from the natural and spiritual world. But it strikes a positive final note by implying that those worlds still exist, just out of sight, waiting and flourishing.”

    The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is both very simple and head-spinningly confounding, a thing of endless visual beauty that seems to partake in a kind of pictorial minimalism but finds staggering possibilities for beautiful variation within its ineluctable modality,” wrote Glenn Kenny at RogerEbert.com in 2014. “It’s a true work of art.”

    Updates, 4/6: Cartoon Brew’s Amid Amidi is collecting tweeted tributes from animation directors around the world, starting with Lee Unkrich (Coco).

    At RogerEbert.com, Peter Sobczynski has written up a fairly detailed account of the life and, towards the end, notes that “American audiences will have a chance to see Pom Poko and Grave of the Fireflies on the big screen, where they truly belong, as part of a monthly program of Ghibli films appearing in theaters across the country this summer—the former screens June 17, 18, and 20 while the latter plays on August 12, 13, and 15. There can be no greater tribute to Takahata and his work than to go and see these films and experience the magic that he created so effortlessly through his work.”

    As a followup to his piece for the August 2015 issue of Sight & Sound, Nick Bradshaw had a few questions for Takahata: “When I am asked to write a message for children, I often write ‘Live full of life in a lively way!’”

    Updates, 4/7: Sight & Sound has now posted Bradshaw’s article on the making of The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, “a lamentation for time’s hasty passage—animated in a fleet brushstroke style that exudes spontaneity and swiftness. It’s a radical look—at least for studio-produced feature animation—that harks back to Japanese woodblock and scroll art, here used to animate Takahata’s version of Japan’s oldest-recorded folk tale, which dates back at least a millennium.”

    Writing for Slate, Sam Adams notes that “where Miyazaki circled around the same set of obsessions—flight, ecological catastrophe, childhood—Takahata’s films were each singular, so visually and thematically distinct they might have been created by a different person.”

    From the Japan Times: “Mitaka Mayor Keiko Kiyohara, who worked with Takahata on the operation of the Ghibli Museum in the western Tokyo city, said in a statement: ‘I believe he will direct an animation film filled with love for humanity even in heaven.’”

    Update, 4/9: “After graduating from Okayama prefectural high school, where his father was the headteacher, he enrolled at the University of Tokyo in 1954 to study French literature,” writes Jasper Sharp for the Guardian. “It was at this time that he encountered the work of Jacques Prévert and, more crucially, a film that would change the course of his life, Paul Grimault’s animation Le Roi et l’Oiseau (1952; released in Japan in 1955), for which the French poet had written the screenplay. In 2006, Studio Ghibli would distribute Grimault’s extended director’s cut of the original film, while Takahata published a collection of his own translations of Prévert’s poetry into Japanese in 2006.”

    Updates, 4/11: “Watching Grave of the Fireflies is like viewing the slow creep of death while willing the end to be different,” writes Darran Anderson for frieze. “But to do so would be a betrayal of those for whom the Second World War really was the apocalypse. Life is transitory and was all the more fleeting in those days. Yet despite the film’s devastating impact, the moments that stay with you are those which are intimate, mesmeric and reflective: a tattered umbrella, the rattle of Sakuma drops sweets in a tin, the echoes of a child’s voice and footsteps, and the bioluminescent dance of fireflies. Even during the bombing, there are brief, masterful moments of stillness—focusing on the shadow of a tree upon a wall where a ladder and mop lean, and ripples on a water tank where a single leaf floats—that are zen-like in their clarity, before the skies darken and the horror begins to unfold and engulf.”

    “His follow-up, three years later, was Only Yesterday, my personal favorite of his canon and certainly the most underrated of all the studio’s films,” writes the Atlantic’s David Sims. “Only Yesterday isn’t nearly as bleak as Grave of the Fireflies, but it does, once again, seem less obviously aimed at children.”

    Update, 4/14: “He was never bound to a single aesthetic sensibility, genre, or story structure,” writes Dan Schindel for Hyperallergic. “He could continually reinvent himself as a filmmaker, and did so multiple times over nearly sixty years in his field. . . . His genius lay in his effortless ability to portray the mundane—something not often associated with the motion-focused energy of animation. He brought this grounding even to the most fantastical settings and characters, and the result was a deep-seated humanity running through his entire oeuvre.”

    Update, 4/16: For the BBC, Heather Chen talks with, among others, Roland Kelts, author of Japanamerica: “Grave of the Fireflies is a story richly told, with all the ambiguity and second-guesses of the way life is lived. Its story remains relevant today because of that fact alone. It tells about the failure of heroism and nobility in desperate circumstances and in that way, it’s almost an anti-Hollywood film. Hollywood will have you believe that heroes are needed when times are tough. 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.”

    Update, 4/20: For Karl Smith at the Quietus, “that Grave begins and ends with death ensures that the specter lurks throughout the entire film, imminent, omnipresent and unrelenting—as accurate a portrait as it is possible to tender.”

    For news and items of interest throughout the day, every day, follow @CriterionDaily.

14 comments

  • By thevoid99
    April 05, 2018
    05:53 PM

    Domo arigato Takahata-san.
    Reply
  • By Jeremy C.
    April 05, 2018
    07:25 PM

    NOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!! His films weren't as consistently resonant as Miyazaki's (ex.: "My Neighbors the Yamadas" and "Pom Poko" are merely Very Good), but when he made a Great Film, as he did with "Grave of the Fireflies" and "The Tale of the Princess Kaguya", he was utterly brilliant.
    Reply
  • By itchyrodent32
    April 05, 2018
    10:21 PM

    Grave of the Fireflies is one of the most devastatingly beautiful movies ever made, animated or otherwise. Thank you, Takahata-san. May you rest in peace.
    Reply
  • By HouseofYes
    April 06, 2018
    09:27 AM

    If Miyazaki was the Kurosawa of anime, Takahata was the Ozu. I'm going to miss him.
    Reply
    • By Sean Ramsdell
      April 06, 2018
      11:48 AM

      And Otomo of Akira fame is Mizoguchi?
  • By Sean Ramsdell
    April 06, 2018
    11:48 AM

    Or more accurately Suzuki
    Reply
    • By Jeremy C.
      April 06, 2018
      02:05 PM

      I will gently push against these comparisons, as they obscure more than the broad similarities they reveal. A few quick, not all-encompassing points: I love Kurosawa, but he was always – well, twenty-nine times out of thirty, give or take a Lady Kaede or two – a director of men, unlike Miyazaki, whose work, in addition, never reached the depths of despair that "Ran" and "The Lower Depths" did, not even the postapocalyptic "Nausicaä" manga. Ozu made smaller-scale films about family, as did Takahata, but Takahata also directed fantastic films of a substantially greater scale than Ozu's. (Even his mundane films, like "Grave of the Fireflies" and "Only Yesterday", at least as I remember them, are a bit larger than Ozu's, especially after he codified his style.) Suzuki, at times, could infuse the scripts he directed with great flair, but he never reached the thematic richness that Otomo's work had at his peak: the "Akira" manga. (The film, on the other hand, simultaneously cuts way too much – which prevents it from being as nuanced on science and technology, or anything really, as the manga – and leaves in too much – which makes its plot overstuffed.)
    • By Jeremy C.
      April 06, 2018
      02:08 PM

      (Small correction: "Grave of the Fireflies" has a fantastic ending, though it is largely a mundane film.)
  • By Connor Doyle
    April 06, 2018
    01:22 PM

    Takahata, you will be missed. HIs work, especially Grave of the Fireflies, deserves to be part of the Criterion Collection.
    Reply
  • By Sean Ramsdell
    April 08, 2018
    10:04 PM

    Anyone checked out my Studio Ghibli list?
    Reply
    • By Jeremy C.
      April 09, 2018
      03:38 PM

      I have.
  • By Davey32
    April 09, 2018
    04:47 PM

    His visionary animation will always stand the test of time. He will be missed dearly.
    Reply