Isao Takahata: Studio Ghibli’s Unsung Hero

As Studio Ghibli’s The Red Turtle hits UK screens this week, we look back at the cinematic legacy of the studio’s lesser-known architect, Isao Takahata.

by Nikhil Sreekandan

Directed by the Oscar-winning Michaël Dudok de Wit, The Red Turtle is Studio Ghibli’s first global co-production and the first with a foreign director at the helm.  This wordless tale of a man shipwrecked on a desert island was entirely completed at the Prima Linea studios in Paris and has been in the works for a decade before it premiered at Cannes last year.

Such long gestation periods in filmmaking are a trademark of the studio’s lesser-known founder Isao Takahata, who incidentally was the artistic producer for The Red Turtle. His last feature film The Tale of Princess Kaguya took more than 10 years to complete.

Hayao Miyazaki, Joe Hisaishi and Isao Takahata.
From L to R: Hayao Miyazaki, Joe Hisaishi and Isao Takahata. ©The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness, Studio Ghibli

Often described as a ‘sloth’ by his younger colleague and co-founder Hayao Miyazaki, Takahata delaying the release of his films goes back as long as 1968 when they collaborated for their very first feature film, Horus, Prince of the Sun.  In Miyazaki’s book Starting Point, he says, “By the time it was completed, I had gotten married, had my first son, and my son had celebrated his first birthday.”

Unlike his compatriot, the works of Hayao Miyazaki are synonymous with Studio Ghibli and are renowned all over the world – Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke and My Neighbour Totoro to name a few.

Often referred to as the greatest animation filmmaker in history, Miyazaki was presented with the Academy Honorary Award in 2015 for having “deeply influenced animation forever” and  “inspiring generations of artists to work in our medium and illuminate its limitless potential”.

giphy (1)
My Neighbor Totoro gif

But for all the attention Miyazaki receives from critics and fans alike, Takahata’s contribution to the brand of Ghibli is just as significant, or one could even say without his unique storytelling voice, the studio’s filmmaking history just wouldn’t be the same.

Different from many of his contemporaries, Takahata does not draw and has never worked as an animator.  He studied French literature at the University of Tokyo and is said to have been majorly influenced by the French animator Paul Grimault’s 1952 film The King and the Mocking Bird.

His body of work is also much smaller than Miyazaki’s, but the absolutely impressive set of singular films Takahata has to his name is staggering.

Grave of the Fireflies, his first film for the studio alone would secure Takahata’s legacy as an echelon filmmaker. It is considered by many as ‘the greatest war film ever made’, and rightly so! Based on the short story by Akiyuki Nosaka, it tells the harrowing tale of a young boy Seita and his little sister Setsuko who lose their home and then their mother as they try to survive in a war-torn Japan.

One of the more serious films from Ghibli,  revolutionary at heart and visually arresting, it was something done never before in animation.

In the film’s most famous sequence, Seita and Setsuko catch fireflies and use it to illuminate their cave – it’s a moment of joyous wonder as they watch in awe. The next morning when Seita wakes up, he finds his sister digging a grave for the fireflies. A grave just like the one her mama is in she explains as she pours the hundreds of dead insects into the small grave, akin to the vast number of mangled human bodies dumped in such mass graves across Japan.

The fireflies become a symbol of the fragility and beauty of our short human lives. And, it’s such independent moments of genuine beauty and depth that transforms Takahata’s work into something more mystical.

1991’s Only Yesterday similarly sees Takahata continue his tradition of realism as he delivers one of the most profound and deeply personal poems on life. It tells the story of Taeko, a Tokyo office worker who at the age of 27 is dissatisfied and unhappy with her life; the entire film nothing but a reflection of her life until that point.

Silence was always Ghibli’s most powerful weapon, as the audience are left to simmer with the thoughts of the characters on-screen; but in the hands of Takahata, even the most mundane of activities attain a genuine glow.

In the following years, Takahata took on a more experimental approach as he followed it up with Pom Poko in 1994 and My Neighbours the Yamadas in 1999. While Pom Poko saw him tread an entirely different path, producing what could be called a darker shade of Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, My Neighbours the Yamadas saw him at his most daring self as he transformed a popular newspaper comic strip into a screamingly funny illustration of the highs and lows of a quirky Japanese family.

Both of these movies eventually culminated in the 2013 masterpiece, The Tale of Princess Kaguya, which fittingly turned out to be Takahata’s swan song. The movie which came 14 years after My Neighbours the Yamadas will fondly be remembered as a landmark in cinematic history.

Everything about the film is top-notch. The story which is based on the Japanese folktale, ‘The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter,’ in his hands transforms into this multifaceted exploration of life, death and what it means to be alive;  the beautiful breathtaking animation which in many ways is an extension of the style in Yamadas becomes an entirely singular experience; and the music, Takahata, at last, collaborates with the legendary Joe Hisaishi to produce the composer’s best ever work.

The Tale of Princess Kaguya is a very strangely paced affair, but it builds to a final half-hour that is probably the most powerful cinematic experience ever created. As dream and fantasy mix to create a dizzying plethora of abstract visuals and music, the broader scope of the story reveals itself, making for an instant clearly visible the very meaning of our time on earth.

Yes, Takahata was never the animator, a wealth of his work has been dependent on Yoshifumi Kondo, his right-hand artist who realised his visions into reality; but to refer him as anything less than ‘one of the greatest living filmmakers of our time’, would be a crime.

So, if you are someone who’s unaware of this Japanese legend or maybe are yet to hear the name Ghibli, consider yourself lucky because you’ve got some of the finest cinema to look forward to.

Share the positive!