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By Daniel Lammin
9th May 2015

For most western audiences, Studio Ghibli is defined by the works of Hayao Miyazaki thanks to the enormous success of his films like ‘My Neighbour Totoro’ and ‘Spirited Away’. His work is iconic and acclaimed, and has brought the company considerable international attention. Last month, to celebrate the release of ‘The Collected Works of Hayao Miyazaki from Madman, I spent some time looking over his extraordinary career. However, just as significant to the founding and success of the studio has been the work of another director, less well-known to English-speaking audiences but as important a voice in the history of animation as Miyazaki. Through his work on the five films he directed for Ghibli, Isao Takahata has pushed animation into directions unlike anything the medium had seen before, or arguably has seen since.

Takahata was already an established animation director when he founded Ghibli with Miyazaki and producer Toshio Suzuki in 1985. He had acted as mentor to Miyazaki on earlier projects, such as Takahata’s acclaimed anime TV series ‘Heidi: A Girl of the Alps’ (1974), and also acted as producer on the first two Ghibli films. In many ways, without the mentorship of Takahata, there may have been no Hayao Miyazaki or Studio Ghibli, but that is far from his greatest contribution to the history of animation. His first film, released in conjunction with ‘Totoro’, was unlike anything the studio had produced until that point, and sat in stark contrast to the whimsy and delight of Miyazaki’s films. With ‘Grave of the Fireflies’ (1988), Takahata turned animation into something emotional, unforgiving and deeply powerful.

These three adjectives also perfectly encapsulate what made Takahata such a formidable artist before he announced his retirement last year. Though he only produced five films for the company, each is as distinct and powerful as the last, often at odds with the more popular idea of what animation could be. He also chose material that at first seems completely inappropriate for animation, particularly if you see it as a medium for children. ‘Fireflies’ deals openly with the final days of the Second World War in Japan, following an orphaned brother and sister trying to fight off crippling poverty, often in shockingly graphic detail. ‘Only Yesterday’ (1991) tenderly looks at a young woman revisiting her rural childhood in something more akin to an adult drama than a cartoon. Even stories that appear more accessible, like the sublime ‘My Neighbours the Yamadas’ (1999) bubbles with melancholy underneath raucous situational comedy. Very few of his films would be appropriate for young children, whether that be because of content, rhythm or themes, but compared to traditional cinema, his films pack as much punch, and often even more, than any films created for an adult audience.


In Takahata’s films, animation is simply a tool in his storytelling process rather than the governing principle. These films are not meant for a particular audience, but like the best films from the best artists in cinema, they simply demand to exist and be seen. At no point does Takahata second-guess himself or pull back from delivering emotional blows to his audience. ‘Fireflies’ is often seen as one of the saddest films ever made, its opening minutes as emotionally harrowing as those of Pixar’s ‘Up’ yet even less forgiving. There is an honesty to his work that can be both difficult to watch and extremely relatable at the same time. In ‘Yamadas’, he presents a series of sketches centred on an average Japanese family and the antics that come from their relationships, and each member of the family is totally relatable. You giggle endlessly as they lose daughter Nonoko in a department store, and feel intensely for father Takashi as he wrestles with his role as patriarch of the household. Takahata might play with momentary flights of fancy, but it’s always firmly based in a recognisable reality. Even something as bizarre as ‘Pom Poko’ (1994), about a group of big-testicled shape-shifting raccoons battling urban development, keeps its feet planted firmly on the ground. With content alone, Takahata makes a stirring case for animation to be seen as a medium for any audience, not just children.

And that’s without mentioning his visual storytelling. As a point of comparison, Miyazaki’s films have a strong consistency of style, a whimsical cartoon storybook quality that can be found in films as light as ‘Totoro’ and as dark as ‘Monokoke’, and throughout his career, he very rarely ventured outside of those parameters. Takahata however is distinct in that the looks of his films have almost no consistency, not just with one another but with other popular animated films. Films like ‘Fireflies’, ‘Pom Poko’ and ‘Only Yesterday’ push for a sense of hyper-realism, human characters rendered in striking detail. There’s a visual sharpness to these films, a texture that straddles the line between live action and animation. And then, with ‘Yamadas’, that detailed animation is replaced with something more akin to sketches done by a little kid. The screen explodes with a kaleidoscope rough lines and simply drawn caricatures, the antithesis of the earlier films and probably the rawest form of animation possible. And then, ‘Kaguya’ reaches for the sublime with a Japanese picture scroll brought to life in probably the most beautiful animation ever captured on screen. At every turn and with every film, Takahata changes form and style to accommodate to his material, finding the best manner of visual poetry to match the story he is telling. Miyazaki is certainly one of the masters of animation, but his films never come close to the visual daring and bravery of Takahata’s, and though each looks as distinctive as the last, they are held together by an uncompromising pursuit that make them the prime examples of animation as an art as well as an entertainment.

Through his work on the five films he directed for Ghibli, Isao Takahata has pushed animation into directions unlike anything the medium had seen before, or arguably has seen since.

If you’ve been following my feature articles for SWITCH, you know how much I adore animation. It’s a medium I’ve only grown to love more and more as I’ve gotten older. Discovering Takahata’s films though was an experience unlike anything I’ve ever had. ‘Fireflies’ left me utterly devastated, ‘Yamadas’ left me giddy with delight and ‘Kaguya’ left me in a state of awe I hadn’t felt from an animated film in a very long time. There is a violence, a passion and an ecstasy to his films that digs under your skin and leaves lasting effects. These films have a beating heart and living soul, held together by an artistic mind and pursuit without compromise. Takahata and his films are as important as those from Hayao Miyazaki, their works both complementary and fiercely individual. He may have only made five films with Studio Ghibli, but each is a gem worth treasuring. So if all you know of Ghibli is Kiki and Totoro, Mononoke and Ponyo, do yourself a favour and revel in the masterworks of their other great master animator. Like looking at any great works of art, it’ll be an experience you won’t likely forget.

This week, Madman have released Takahata’s final masterpiece, ‘The Tale of the Princess Kaguya’ on Blu-ray. Click here to read our review of this exceptional release.

You can also click here to read our retrospective feature on Hayao Miyazaki.

RELEASE DATE: 06/05/2015
RUN TIME: 2h 17m
DIRECTOR: Isao Takahata
WRITERS: Isao Takahata
Riko Sakaguchi
SCORE: Joe Hisaishi
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