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Isao Takahata, animator and film executive, 1935-2018

Isao Takahata, animator and film executive, 1935-2018

April 14
09:00 2018

The problem with cinema’s usual depictions of incendiary bomb attacks, according to Isao Takahata, who helped found Japan’s most successful animation studio and directed one of the most powerful war films ever made, is that they fail to capture the terror of real-life explosions.

“I was there,” he told the Japan Times in 2015, recalling how he and his sister fled barefoot from a firestorm as US bombs rained down on the streets of Okayama, “so I know what it is like.”

Takahata, who has died aged 82, was determined to infuse his own work with that wrenching realism. He pioneered a movement that changed the nature of Japanese animation, and to which he remained actively committed until the end of his life. Even before his 1988 masterpiece, Grave of the Fireflies, Takahata had begun to exalt a form — previously dismissed as children’s cartoons — into a medium that is now acknowledged as the supreme transmitter of Japanese artistry, storytelling and creativity.

Together with his great friend — the director and producer Hayao Miyazaki — Takahata co-founded Studio Ghibli in 1985. The studio would produce a stream of animated blockbusters, including the Tale of Princess Kaguya (2013) and the Oscar-winning Spirited Away (2001), as well as characters, like the bearlike woodland spirit Totoro, that populate children’s bedrooms around the world. These achievements are especially extraordinary, say other veteran animators, for a man who always asserted that he could not draw.

‘My Neighbor Totoro’ features a bear-like woodland spirit

Born in 1935, Takahata was the son of a schoolteacher and spent his teenage years among the ashes of Okayama before winning a place at Tokyo university to study French literature. His exposure there to cinema, drama and, in particular, the poetry of Jacques Prevert were critical to his development.

Unlike Mr Miyazaki, who drew all his creations himself, Takahata’s skill was in conveying the dramatic power of each scene to professional animators, ordering the precise nuance of each facial expression, and honing the technical impact of each frame.

Takahata learned the anime arts with the best. On graduating, he joined the company that would later become Toei Animation — a powerhouse of cute, violent, sentimental and manic animation titles that has dominated Japan’s television cartoon output since the 1960s.

It was here that he met and befriended the younger artist Mr Miyazaki and, as a pair, they began to outgrow the studio. In 1968, the two worked together on Takahata’s debut as a director of a movie-length animation — a film about violence, betrayal and remorse that was a thinly veiled commentary on aspects of Japanese society at the time. Horus, Prince of the Sun fared so badly at the box office that Takahata was briefly demoted to assistant director.

A still from ‘The Tale of the Princess Kaguya’, one of the studio’s animated blockbusters

Still, Takahata linked both the biggest joys and challenges of his life to that film, revealing to the Japan Times how much he wanted to inject grand drama and serious themes into his work. Toei, he grumbled, was too used to pitching its output at children. The studio should, he said, “have aimed his film at high school and university students and young adults. But the company made no efforts to do so.”

The episode helped drive Takahata, Mr Miyazaki and a third animator to strike out on their own. Along the way, the two worked on the 1974 TV series Heidi, Girl of the Alps — a 52-episode series that remains beloved by Japanese. Heidi’s carefree depiction, he told one journalist, “stems from my ideal image of what a child should be like”.

Takahata’s most memorable work, however, remains Grave of the Fireflies. The story of a brother and sister living and starving through the final days of the second world war is based on a semi-autobiographical short story. In interviews, Takahata said that by introducing the main characters at the beginning of the film as ghosts, the trauma for the audience would be lessened. Most critics agree, however, that the blow of their eventual deaths is barely softened at all and that Grave ranks as one of the most shatteringly evocative antiwar films ever produced.

Outside the studio, his experiences as a child made Takahata a fierce opponent of Japanese postwar militarism. In 2015, when Prime Minister Shinzo Abe began talking seriously about revising the “peace clause” of the constitution, which says that land, sea and air forces shall never be maintained, Takahata became a founding member of a group of moviemakers vehemently against such a move. “Nobody knows how horrifying a war is going to be at the beginning of hostilities,” he said in what would be one of his last interviews.

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