The animation and film world took a blow on Thursday with the death of Isao Takahata, the Studio Ghibli co-founder and frequent Hayao Miyazaki collaborator. Takahata had a partnership with Miyazaki that lasted over 50 years, well before the two established their legendary production house.
While Takahata started his career in television, directing many different titles–including an uncredited run as episode director on the first Lupin III television series along with Miyazaki–his films are probably what he is best known for.
In every one of his works, he explored the boundaries of the traditional animated film. It can’t be stated enough the powerful influence he had on the medium.
As a memorial for a man who made a huge impact on the world of animation, let’s take a look at a list of Isao Takahata’s animated film works.
Hols, Prince of the Sun (1968)
Also known as The Great Adventure of Horus, Prince of the Sun and The Little Norse Prince, Takahata’s directorial film debut is considered a landmark in the history of animation. With help from his future Studio Ghibli co-founder, Hayao Miyazaki, the film set the stage for Japanese animation to turn towards a more mature and adult-oriented direction.
Akira, Ghost in the Shell, Perfect Blue–it could be argued that none of these would have come about (at least in their animated forms) were it not for this little-known gem. Stylistic, complex, and loaded with psychological realism, Hols, Prince of the Sun is light years ahead of anything produced at the time. It’s a film that needs to be seen if you appreciate the medium of Japanese animation.
Panda! Go, Panda! (1972) / The Rainy Day Circus (1973)
The Japanese title actually translates more accurately to Panda and Baby Panda, but it’s officially known in the West as Panda! Go, Panda! Unlike Takahata’s previous film, these two shorts were immediate critical successes.
The films are light, family-friendly affairs that connected with audiences when they were shown before the Toho Godzilla films of the time. Many of the ideas and elements in these films would be resurrected when Takahata and Miyazaki founded Studio Ghibli and created My Neighbor Totoro. The panda’s animation is very similar to the totoros and the human girl Mimiko is a precursor to Mei and Satsuki from Totoro.
Jarinko Chie (1981)
Takahata went on to work in television throughout much of the 1970’s, working as director or storyboard director for such shows as Heidi, Girl of the Alps and Anne of Green Gables. He returned to feature films in 1981 to direct Jarinko Chie, also known as Downtown Story in the U.S.
Based on the best-selling manga series, the film tells the story of Chie Takamoto as she helps her father run an izakaya (Japanese style bar) in Osaka. The film was a hit, so much so that in October of the same year, Takahata went on to direct a 64-episode television series.
Gauche the Cellist (1982)
Gauche the Cellist is an adaptation of a short story originally written by Kenji Miyazawa. Takahata wrote the original screenplay and directed this animated outing. It was critically acclaimed at the time of its release. It features many of author Miyazawa’s trademark pathos and Magical Realism, such as talking animals.
Even though the film only has a running time of a little over an hour, it took over 6 years to complete. This was mostly due to the team’s meticulous attention to detail, such as lead key animator Shunji Saida’s insistence on accurately animating Gauche’s finger movements when playing the cello. All of that determination definitely paid off in the end.
Grave of the Fireflies (1988)
Between 1982 and 1988, Miyazaki and Takahata would found Studio Ghibli. During that period, Takahata served as producer on Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind and Castle in the Sky. He also took time to direct a live-action documentary, The Story of Yanagawa’s Canals. He returned to animation with Grave of the Fireflies, considered by many to be one of the greatest animated films of all time.
The story of a brother and sister desperately trying to survive in the closing days of World War II, the film offers a grim portrayal of the toll war takes on ordinary people. The author of the original short story, Akiyuki Nosaka, considered his work unadaptable until Studio Ghibli presented him with the storyboards for their animated vision.
At first, the Grave of the Fireflies was double-billed with Miyazaki’s My Neighbor Totoro, an odd marketing choice. Many parents weren’t keen on taking their children to see such a dark film paired with the cuter and more palatable Totoro. It wasn’t until the film was able to be judged on its own that its storytelling and artistic merits could be appreciated.
Only Yesterday (1991)
The highest grossing Japanese film of 1991, Takahata’s Only Yesterday was a surprise hit. Critics and audiences alike responded positively to the story of young woman from Tokyo who takes a holiday to visit family relatives. Her journey brings back several memories from her childhood, which help her decide what she really wants to do with her life.
A realistic drama was something that many critics and fans thought wouldn’t work in an animated form, but Takahata proved them wrong with his deft directorial hand. The switches between past and present are particularly well-crafted and add a dreamlike quality to this otherwise grounded (and extremely well-told) story.
Pom Poko (1994)
Known in Japanese as Heisei-Era Racoon Dog War Ponpoko, this comedy/fantasy film stars a community of the titular raccoon dogs as they try to stop a development company from destroying their home. Pom Poko, like Only Yesterday before it, was the top-grossing Japanese film in the year of its release.
The film is notable for its animation direction, particularly how the raccoon dogs are animated. When they are seen by humans, they look realistically like raccoon dogs. When shapeshifting or doing something mischievous, they appear very cartoonish and cutesy. During all other times, they appear in clothing, standing on two legs and talking to each other.
One of the most prominent elements of the traditional raccoon dog statues in Japan are the large nether regions. This is also an element that is joked about in the film. However, the English dub replaces the references to the raccoon testicles by calling them raccoon “pouches.” Indeed.
My Neighbors the Yamadas (1999)
Looking more like a manga than a traditional anime film of the time, My Neighbors the Yamadas is a light and irreverent animated comedy. Keeping in line with the manga style of the presentation, Takahata presents 13 vignettes in place of an overarching story.
This wouldn’t be the last time that Takahata took a more avant-garde approach to the animation direction with his films. My Neighbors the Yamadas was also the first completely digital animated film produced by Studio Ghibli. The film was a hit with critics, but unfortunately wasn’t treated so kindly at the box office. It’s a shame, because it’s both a funny and highly enjoyable film with a unique style.
Winter Days (2003)
Winter Days is an anthology work featuring 36 shorts which were created using various animation techniques such as cel work, CGI, and even vector animation. It is based on a collection of linked poems by Basho, a Japanese poet from the 17th century.
Takahata directs the 28th “stanza.” The humorous 1-minute segment again uses a more experimental animation style, looking more like a traditional Japanese art scroll. There’s also a live-action shot of a toilet flushing. You’ll just have to watch it above and see for yourself.
The Tale of Princess Kaguya (2013)
The final film that Takahata directed in his lifetime was the culmination of his interest in a more experimental style of animation that dominated the later part of his career. With a 2 hour and 17 minute run time, the film can be considered nothing short of an epic.
Based on the folktale The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, the film uses a watercolor aesthetic to capture a fluid style that makes it another Takahata film that truly stands out from its contemporaries and will undoubtedly stand the test of time. It has been hailed as an “animated treasure” by critics on Rotten Tomatoes and has been lavished with praise since its release. It really is the perfect swan song for a man who dedicated his life to exploring and advancing the medium of animation, not just in Japan but around the world.
With so many wonderful and boundary-pushing films under his belt, it’s hard not to feel the great blow of Takahata’s passing. However, he left behind a wonderful legacy that will surely last for generations to come.