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The unsung genius of Studio Ghibli’s risk-taking realist, Isao Takahata

Hayao Miyazaki has become a legend, but Takahata’s relentless experimentation is just as remarkable

A vast face looks down on a miniature princess in The Tale of the Princess Kaguya
The Tale of The Princess Kaguya
Image: Hatake Jimusho / Studio Ghibli

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[Ed. note: This essay contains end spoilers for Grave of the Fireflies.]

At the mouth of the abandoned bomb shelter, the teenager kneels beside his starving sister and opens a pocket knife. With two light strokes, he cuts a slice out of a small watermelon and gently feeds it to her by hand. He’s trying to save her from starvation, but he’s too late, and he discovers her body the next day. It’s a devastatingly memorable sequence in Studio Ghibli’s Grave of the Fireflies, one of the most powerful war movies ever made. The film is so heart-wrenching that many viewers can only bear to watch it once.

And yet decades later, its director, Isao Takahata, who died in 2018, remained unsatisfied with the scene. “The cutting is weird,” he says in a documentary about the making of the film. “It looks like tofu.”

So when Takahata decided to include another melon-cutting scene in what became his final film, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, he had his animation team bring knives into the studio. He demanded that the animators slice into melons again and again, learning with their own hands how quickly and in what way exactly the blade enters the fruit, grasping every detail before they would be allowed to finish animating. The completed scene is patient and purposeful. The melon-cutting takes up only a few seconds. The film took eight years to make. It is considered a masterpiece.

In fact, while the works of Takahata’s onetime pupil and longtime colleague Hayao Miyazaki are far better known worldwide, Takahata’s films are equally renowned in Japan. Even people who are critical of Studio Ghibli and its brain trust, including Ghost in the Shell director Mamoru Oshii, consider Takahata a master — not that you would know it by the words of his own colleagues. Producer Toshio Suzuki, who co-founded Ghibli with Miyazaki, Takahata, and producer Yasuyoshi Tokuma, has accused Takahata of being so difficult to work with that he “destroyed so many people,” including Ghibli heir apparent Yoshifumi Kondō. Suzuki has accused Takahata of working Kondo to death, even though Kondō’s last project, before he died of either an aortic dissection or aneurysm in 1998, was working under Miyazaki on Princess Mononoke.

For his part, Miyazaki, whose own reputation as a taskmaster in a famously brutal industry is on par with Takahata’s, charges his colleague with a different cardinal sin: laziness. “By nature he is a real slugabed sloth — the descendant of some giant sloth that once crawled the plains of earth in the Pliocene era,” the world’s most beloved animator wrote of his longtime friend and business partner. Even Takahata’s nickname at the studio, “Paku-san,” hides scorn behind affection. In Japanese, “paku paku” is an onomatopoeic description of the sound flapping lips make while eating, a reference to the director’s habit of showing up nearly late to the studio each morning, shoving bread into his mouth, and washing it down with water. “You can be guaranteed,” Miyazaki writes, “that at several points in the production he will begin yelling, ‘I can’t possibly make this film!’”

Yet make them he did: five masterful feature films for Studio Ghibli alone, even though he came to animation after studying French literature, not visual arts, and even though he had no interest in learning to animate himself. Takahata only wanted to write and direct, but he was adamant that he would do so in the world of animation. Takahata’s works are fewer, further between, and practically fated to be less globally successful than Miyazaki’s 11 features for their studio, due to riskier choices in both content and style. And he pissed off a whole lot of people in the process of making them, including some of his own staunchest allies. But when it comes to the sheer excellence of their respective filmographies, Studio Ghibli’s two great directors are equals.

The visually simple, cartoony family cast of My Neighbors the Yamadas
My Neighbors the Yamadas
Image: Studio Ghibli

Paku-san himself would deny it. “Unfortunately, I’m not a genius like Miyazaki,” he told Variety in 2016. “His creativity was realized in an exceedingly concrete form, and as his expression goes beyond abstraction. The imagery of his works appeal to a mass audience and is able to be enjoyed by all. He is careful not to ignore the commercial and entertainment aspects of his works.”

But Takahata was willing to push boundaries in a way Miyazaki was not: to go darker, to experiment with form, to hew more closely to realism in both storytelling and visuals, and to employ abstraction to highlight that realism. His first film after the founding of Studio Ghibli was neither animated, nor technically, a Ghibli film — The Story of Yanagawa’s Canals, a three-hour, chiefly live-action documentary about, well, the history of the canals of the Japanese town of Yanagawa, was produced by Miyazaki’s personal office with the royalties generated by Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. His next, technically his first for Ghibli, was Grave of the Fireflies, which was released as a double feature with Miyazaki’s beguiling pseudo-fairytale My Neighbor Totoro in 1988, to dubious fiscal results. (Before the merchandising, that is.)

Grave adapts a well-known, troubling, semi-autobiographical short story by novelist Akiyuki Nosaka, and was expected to be the better-received of the two films. It’s certainly considered a classic, but it’s not as beloved as Totoro. And how could it be? Totoro is about a well-loved 4-year-old who befriends a giant, mysterious, but cuddly forest god. Grave is about an orphaned 4-year-old who dies of malnutrition and becomes a ghost wandering the hills of Japan with her dead brother, because not a single person, including their own relatives, could be bothered to treat them with any compassion.

Grave of the Fireflies is a brutal depiction of the suffering of innocents during wartime that’s enough to make any viewer anti-war, even if its director — who himself survived a U.S. air raid on Okayama city as a child — staunchly insisted it was no anti-war film. It’s the kind of subject matter most viewers would never associate with animation, even though the film followed in the footsteps of Mori Masaki’s 1983 film Barefoot Gen, and was followed by Neon Genesis Evangelion. It’s the sort of film Miyazaki would never make, even though he’s willing to call his work anti-war, and even though he’s also depicted the Japanese wartime experience in film.

A grubby child stands outside under a torn paper umbrella in Grave of the Fireflies
Grave of the Fireflies
Image: Studio Ghibli

In fact, it’s tempting to see Takahata simply as the filmmaker who would dare what Miyazaki wouldn’t. The story behind his second Ghibli film, Only Yesterday, seems to be a case in point. “When Miyazaki was approached about adapting the manga Only Yesterday, he was stumped by its episodic style,” critic David Carter wrote for Indiana University Cinema in 2018. “He handed the project over to Takahata, who grasped on to the idea of making the vignettes of childhood flashbacks and having them revolve around and inform a newly added story about a 27-year-old woman struggling with the direction of her life as she goes to visit a family farm for the summer. Takahata drew on his own searching demeanor and nostalgia he had as a younger man, knowing that no matter the age, everyone looks back on who they were to inform what they want to be.”

The film is stunning, alternating between a quiet, tenderly-paced realism in the present-day life of its protagonist, in the 1980s, and the sepia-toned haze of her childhood memories, set in the 1960s. Like his next, Pom Poko, the film also bracingly and directly confronts environmental issues and the divide between urban and rural life that defined so many of the changes that came to Japan in the wake of World War II.

That directness is a major distinguishing factor between the works of Takahata and Miyazaki. Their shared interests — Japanese folklore, environmentalism, the plight of women in Japanese culture, the conflict between the individual and the community, the fleeting, strange beauty of childhood — ensured that their films would have some thematic overlap. But Miyazaki’s films consider the broader audience, where Takahata’s seem to have no patience for such pandering. While Miyazaki’s work often engages with Western cultures, settings, and themes, Paku-san’s films are unabashedly Japanese in context.

Miyazaki’s most straightforwardly environmentalist and folkloric work, Princess Mononoke, for instance, found its representation of nature’s will to endure in Japan in the form of a mysterious forest spirit, and Spirited Away’s spirit-filled bathhouse still made room for a Hans Christian Anderson-esque good witch in a cottage in the woods, ready to reward a young girl who shows kindness and humility. Pom Poko’s protagonists, on the other hand, are tanuki, Japanese raccoon-dogs that make use of their giant testicles and ability to shapeshift into yōkai in order to wreak havoc on the construction sites blighting their forest.

A tanuki stands on his head in the forest next to three inverted golden fish, as he tries to take on a similar form in Pom Poko
Pom Poko
Image: Studio Ghibli

With directness, in Takahata, comes a sense of humor bordering at times on the ribald, and Pom Poko and its follow-up film, My Neighbors the Yamadas, are Ghibli’s most comedic works. They’re also challenging in their own ways. Pom Poko is filled with references to Japanese mythology and culture for which global audiences simply don’t have the reference points, and My Neighbors the Yamadas builds on Only Yesterday’s use of both vignettes and empty visual space to become an almost episodic comedy. It also includes the reading of a number of classical haiku from some of Japan’s greatest poets: Bashō, Buson, and Santōka. There’s nothing else quite like either in the Ghibli pantheon.

Neither is there anything quite like The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, Takahata’s swan song and perhaps his magnum opus, the film that a man famous for hesitating to wrap up his productions took eight years to finish. It was released in 2013, a whopping 14 years after his previous film, My Neighbors the Yamadas. The wait was worth it.

“Realistic films show the physical world,” Roger Ebert wrote once in a review of another Ghibli film about royalty, Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke. “Animation shows its essence.” The assessment is even more apt here, in a film adapted from one of Japan’s oldest and best-known folktales, “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter,” and stylistically reminiscent of sumi-e, Japanese ink-wash painting, which as a discipline sought to capture not the exact likenesses of its subjects, but their essences.

That is, in the end, what Takahata’s movies are about, perhaps even more so than Miyazaki’s: the search for reality in a world that often feels unreal. Paku-san’s realism invokes a level of poetic attention of the highest order, as worthy of Roberto Rossellini as it is of Yasujirō Ozu. The scenes in Only Yesterday in which safflowers are made into dye, for instance, somehow feel more honest than watching the process on actual film. The details are so meticulously recreated that they seem truer than life. His forays into abstraction, as a result, hit all the harder, as in Only Yesterday, where the backgrounds in Taeko’s recollections remain fuzzed out around the edges in white, highlighting how memory fades, or in The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, when Kaguya runs away from her own coming-of-age feast. There, the linework becomes chaotic, almost unhinged, as if the animators lost control of their own creation.

There is an intimacy in Takahata’s work that stands in contrast to the sheer magical scope of Miyazaki’s worlds — an attention to the tiniest details, to the most intimate sorrows and joys, to the smallest physical moments and the big feelings they spawn within us. As a result, there is, in his relentless search for the real, a romanticism as well. The English poet William Blake saw the world in a grain of sand. Isao Takahata saw it in the way someone cuts open a melon.

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