isao takahata legacy

“Why must fireflies die so young?”

On April 5, the world lost an animation titan. Isao Takahata, the co-founder of Studio Ghibli, a frequent collaborator with Hayao Miyazaki, and the director of stunning anime films like Grave of the Fireflies and The Tale of Princess Kaguya, died at 82. But not many people outside of hardcore Studio Ghibli fans may recognize his name.

Takahata’s films are rarely given international acclaim and Disney hasn’t rushed to bring his movies Stateside like they have for his partner, Miyazaki. Until a few years ago, most of his filmography wasn’t even available to buy in the U.S. Which is a huge shame. Much credit has been given to Miyazaki for elevating anime to international heights and testing the limits of anime’s narrative and creative potential. But the Isao Takahata legacy is just as groundbreaking, if not more so.

Takahata is a filmmaker so commonly paired off with Miyazaki — who he met while working in the TV industry — and he certainly was his most frequent collaborator. Takahata produced several of Miyazaki’s most beloved masterpieces, including Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind and Castle in the Sky.

But one look at Takahata’s film catalogue proves that he couldn’t be any more different from Miyazaki. Takahata experimented with surreal, breathy visuals like in The Legend of Princess Kaguya and delved into weird and grotesque comedy like in Pom Poko. And he explored the depths of grief in a way that Miyazaki never dared to touch in his animated war masterpiece, Grave of the Fireflies.

I’ll admit that I wasn’t too drawn to Isao Takahata’s works at first. His screwball comedies were just a little too niche for me, his devastating dramas too hard to process.

But I don’t think it was his niche-ness that was the reason he didn’t reach the same level of global appeal of Miyazaki. Takahata’s films are so distinctly Japanese. Each are rooted in pride of the country, its mythology, its culture — as opposed to Miyazaki, who reveled in creating fantasy worlds that were often influenced by Western mythology (the exceptions being Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke). Each of Takahata’s films are wildly different, but the through-line is that they’re about Japan and Japanese people.

Takahata left a stunning legacy of animated films behind. Here are his best ones.

Grave of the Fireflies

Grave of the Fireflies was the first movie Takahata wrote and directed for Studio Ghibli, in a semi-unofficial collaboration with Miyazaki. The two worked on their vastly different World War II films simultaneously — Takahata on the bleak Grave of the Fireflies, Miyazaki on the whimsical My Neighbor Totoro. They were released in Japan as a double feature, and would portend the kind of emotional whiplash that would become a marker of Takahata’s filmography.

The 1988 film follows a pair of siblings, one teenage boy and his kid sister, attempting to survive in World War II Japan after their mother is killed in a bombing. After living for a time with a cruel aunt, they run away to live in abandoned bomb shelter, and slowly starve to death. But the film, despite its devastating subject matter and nihilistic themes, never once feels manipulative or cloying. It is heartbreakingly intimate, making you feel for the siblings even as their deaths becomes inevitable. It deserves its title as the “saddest film ever made,” but Grave of the Fireflies is more than just the tears you shed. It’s about the small things in life you come to appreciate.

Only Yesterday

Where Grave of the Fireflies‘ emotions felt big, powerful, and raw, Only Yesterday was the opposite. A quiet, wistful romantic drama that doubled as a coming-of-age story, Only Yesterday was released in Japan in 1991 but only received a U.S. release in 2016, nearly 25 years later. It was sometimes referred to as the “lost” Studio Ghibli film, and even now is mostly forgotten in the pantheon of great anime films.

Perhaps it’s because Only Yesterday doesn’t reach the levels of grandeur for which Ghibli films reach. It’s a poetic film about a young Tokyo woman who takes a train trip to the countryside to visit her sister’s family. Along the way, she reminisces about her childhood in the ’60s and her first encounters with love, life, and grief. It’s a film that you wouldn’t expect to see as an anime. Anime — because of its limitless potential and the Japanese film industry’s modest resources —has often become the go-to for big-budget action flicks for Japanese audiences. So you will see extravagant action films in anime, but rarely a coming-of-age film with no fantastical twist whatsoever. That’s what makes Only Yesterday so poignant, and so exemplary of Takahata’s work. He will sometimes go big, but more often than not, he is interested in the small.

Pom Poko

But a few years later, Takahata would prove just how wide-reaching his talent was. In 1994, he directed the weird and slightly perverse Pom Poko. I say perverse, because this is a movie where raccoon spirits use their magical ballsacks to shapeshift or fly. Yes, I said ballsacks.

The Japanese raccoon dogs, or tanuki, are actually based on spirits in Japanese folklore: mischievous, fun-loving spirits who live in a forest habitat. When their forest habitat is threatened by developers, the tanuki band together to scare away the construction workers threatening to destroy their home. It’s a magnificently weird ode to ecological conservation. Pom Poko is so rooted in Japanese folklore and beliefs — and a tone that shifts from family-friendly to overly mature in seconds — that it could not be made by anyone by Takahata

My Neighbors the Yamadas

I remember seeing trailers for My Neighbors the Yamadas on my DVD of Castle in the Sky and being profoundly weirded out. What child’s cartoon did I stumble into? Why did everyone look like a caricature?

This was ostensibly the beginning of Takahata’s break-away from Studio Ghibli’s house style, and a step further down his creative path of irreverent, homey stories. My Neighbors the Yamadas is an episodic comedy film about the hijinks of a suburban family, the Yamadas. It’s a warm slapstick comedy that paved the way for what I think is Takahata’s magnum opus, The Tale of Princess Kaguya.

The Tale of Princess Kaguya

Takahata’s last film as a director may in fact be his masterpiece. An elegiac fairy tale, The Tale of Princess Kaguya follows an old bamboo cutter as he discovers a tiny princess who blooms from a bamboo shoot. He and his kind wife raise her as their own, but discover that she has sudden bursts of growth — jumping one or two years in age in just a few weeks. When she grows older, they take her away to the capital to live in a mansion, in hopes that she’ll become the princess they know she’s destined to be. But the princess, given the name Kaguya, only misses the freedom of the mountain’s open fields and the young bowl-maker’s boy who she played with as a child.

The Tale of Princess Kaguya is the pinnacle of Takahata’s directorial hallmarks. The big, fantastical story feels achingly intimate, his ardor for his home country on display in the story’s homage to Japanese folklore and in the animation’s homage to woodblock prints. And oh, the animation. Drawn to resemble free-hand scribbles, the animation feels wild, loose, and free. It floats on the wind, as if carried off with a thousand cherry blossoms. It’s a gorgeous, deeply affecting movie. And one that perfectly encapsulates Takahata’s legacy.

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