The Anime Greats: Isao Takahata

Welcome to another episode of “The Anime Greats”. Last time, I discussed one of my favourite directors, Hayao Miyazaki. This time, I’d like to discuss another, lesser-known director from Studio Ghibli that’s still worthy of recognition. That’s right, today I’m talking Isao Takahata:

Born on October 29th, 1935, Isao Takahata’s early years were shaped by WWII. At the age of 10, Takahata and his family survived a firebombing in his hometown, an event that’d resurface in his 1988 film Grave of the Fireflies. Like his colleague, Hayao Miyazaki, Takahata was influenced heavily by foreign animation during his early-adulthood, particularly a French film named Le Roi et l’Oiseau, considering it a medium with potential despite his inability to animate. Takahata would graduate from Tokyo University with a degree in French literature in 1959, a path that’d, interestingly enough, lead him to Toei Animation.

After many years, Takahata was given a directing opportunity on the 1968 film Hols: Prince of the Sun. As I said in my previous entry, the movie would go on to become a classic in the decades that followed, yet its initial failure caused everyone to become disgruntled. This included Takahata, and, in 1971, he left to work on a film based on Pippi Longstocking at A-Productions. The film was abandoned when the novel’s author, Astrid Lundgren, refused approval, leaving Takahata to work on smaller projects, like the Lupin III franchise, instead.

In 1974, Takahata got his first big break working on a TV anime called Heidi: Girl of the Alps. What followed was a string of successful shows, eventually becoming chief director on Chie the Brat in 1981 and Gauche the Cellist in 1982. Takahata was also credited as working on Little Nemo that same year, yet-due to artistic differences-he ended up leaving the project to produce Miyazaki’s Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. The film was a smash-hit, and would eventually lead him to join Miyazaki in creating Studio Ghibli.

In 1988, Takahata adapted legendary author Akiyuki Nosaka’s novel into a movie called Grave of the Fireflies, which was to be double-billed alongside My Neighbor Totoro. Despite critical praise, the film’s depressing nature turned off most audiences, causing the double-bill to bomb at the box office and nearly bankrupt Studio Ghibli. Nevertheless, Takahata rebounded in the 90’s with three films, Only Yesterday, Pom Poko and My Neighbors the Yamadas, before taking a 14 year hiatus from directing. In 2013, after many years of production, Takahata released The Tale of the Princess Kaguya as his final film before announcing retirement.

What separates Takahata from Miyazaki is their approach to film. For one, Takahata can’t draw or animate. So while his directing’s top-notch, he’s forced to rely on others for the aesthetic of his films. This has given him direct insight into the talent of others, including the late-Yoshifumi Kondō (who was the lead animator on Grave of the Fireflies and Only Yesterday before directing Whisper of the Heart,) Hiroyuki Morita (who lead My Neighbors the Yamadas before directing The Cat Returns) and Kenichi Konishi (who was the lead animator for The Tale of the Princess Kaguya), and has allowed for other individuals to shine with his films. This isn’t as prevalent with Miyazaki, whom always has a direct stamp on his films.

Additionally, Takahata strives for a different style of realism than Miyazaki. Where as the latter focuses on projecting life into fantasy, Takahata projects fantasy into life. His movies are period pieces dealing with either the harsh realities of life, see Grave of the Fireflies and The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, or the expectations that society has on people, like in Only Yesterday, or, again, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya. His films often contain commentaries on societal norms, yet it’s his cold distance that makes his slow-paced stories so fascinating. Even when he steps into fantasy, it’s never hard fantasy, but drama with a hint of the fantastical. As such, Takahata is more alienating and divisive than his better-known colleague, yet still worthy of recommendation.

And finally, Takahata is known for keeping a low-profile. Despite being as humble-yet-political as Miyazaki, he’s not openly antagonistic. He’s been compared to a hermit in the documentary The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness, even frustrating his employers by going over time and budget with his films (as a side-note, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya has been recorded as the most expensive anime film ever.) Because of this, it’s easy to dismiss Takahata’s brilliance, which, given his résumé, is dishonest.

Overall, Isao Takahata is as much a driving force as Hayao Miyazaki, often representing the other side of the coin that drives Studio Ghibli. In some respects, he’s not that much of a slouch, being the driving force behind dubbing foreign animations for the Studio Ghibli museum. Therefore, while you may not think much of him outside of “that guy that once got nominated for an Oscar”, he’s absolutely deserving of “legendary status”. So here’s to you, Isao Takahata, and your treasure trove of excellence! May it inspire people long after you’re gone!


  1. You know, its interesting in that I prefer Hayao Miyazaki's films on the whole, and yet Takahata seems like the man I'd sooner meet. He's no less opinionated than Miyazaki, but he seems like he's less abrasive and easier to talk to. Don't get me wrong- I've read just enough about Hayao's life [including his own words] to get an inkling of why he's like that. And I'm fairly certain his harsher rhetoric masks no small degree of kindness; even if there weren't any anecdotal evidence of his gentler side, I'd still find it difficult to believe that a man who makes films like Miyazaki's could be a truly terrible person. Even so, I can't deny that he comes across to me as off-putting a lot of the time.

    Its one of my great regrets that I've yet to see most of Takahata's TV work- though in my defense, most of it is very hard to find in the western hemisphere. I've seen his Lupin III work [which is very good, by the way], but that's all I've been able to find of it thus far. Besides that and his film's for Studio Ghibli, I was able to see "Hols: Prince of the Sun", and "Panda Kopanda" and its sequel, "Panda Kopanda and the Rainy Day Circus". I don't think any of those three works comes anywhere near to masterpiece status ["Hols" in particular suffers from a lackluster plot and largely uninteresting characters], but for Ghibli enthusiasts, I think they're all worth watching at least once. The two "Panda" shorts especially, as they seem to heavily prefigure "My Neighbor Totoro" and "Ponyo" in terms of style and narrative.

    I do think his work at Ghibli has been somewhat hit or miss. "Grave of the Fireflies" and "Kaguya" are both great films, and "Only Yesterday" is at least very good. "Yamadas" is pretty average, though, and "Pom Poko" is mediocre [albeit well-animated]. But then, he was always the most "arthouse" of Ghibli's directors, and the experimentation that comes with the "arthouse" territory lends itself well to a "hit or miss" career. To his credit, he's landed on the right side more often than not. And even when he hasn't, the result has never been worse than "an interesting experiment that didn't quite pan out"; nothing to be ashamed of having made.

    You mention his "cold distance", and I can see what you're getting at. I'd like to build on that, though. Takahata is not incapable of making his audience care about his characters; at his best, he's capable of being very emotionally raw, actually. But his use of emotion feels more calculated, more intellectually-oriented. Where a Hayao Miyazaki movie will more than likely wear its heart on its sleeve, an Isao Takahata movie will keep its heart submerged, subtly building to the moment of "release" if you will. I can think of no better way of summing up the difference between the two directors than this:

    Isao Takahata makes you feel *for* his characters, whereas Hayao Miyazaki makes you feel *with* his characters.

    There's nothing wrong with either approach. But both ways are going to elicit different kinds of reaction from an audience.

    1. Cold distance isn't necessarily bad, it's merely a style. And your take on it is definitely a valid one that I'd agree with.

      As for being more approachable, I've actually heard differently. Hayao Miyazaki is an outspoken grump, but he's been reported to be very approachable and friendly outside of his politics. Isao Takahata, on the other hand, has been called impossible to work with, being very stubborn and dead-set on a particular goal that he won't compromise on anything. If you want proof, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya was reported to be a nightmare to work on because of the demands Takahata put on his crew (including watercolour, lack of traditional cels and all rough sketches).

      That's not to say he's not a directing genius, he is, but it's something to think about...


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