Isao Takahata, the Japanese film director and co-founder of the animation studio Studio Ghibli, died of lung cancer on April 5 at age 82. He revolutionized animation without ever putting pen to paper. Unlike most of the great animation directors, he was never an animator himself. He had studied French at university and developed an interest in animation thanks to the seminal French cartoon The King and the Mockingbird, which moved him to join Toei Animation in the 1960s as an assistant director. He never spent long hours hunched over a desk designing characters, painting backgrounds, or painstakingly filling in frames. For this reason, there is no drawing style we can instantly associate with Takahata the way we can with Walt Disney or Takahata’s lifelong friend, collaborator, and fellow Ghibli founder Hayao Miyazaki.
This was not a limitation, but rather the source of Takahata’s masterful versatility as a director. He was never bound to a single aesthetic sensibility, genre, or story structure. He could continually reinvent himself as a filmmaker, and did so multiple times over nearly 60 years in his field. He never attained the international stature of Miyazaki, though he is revered (and now mourned) in animation circles. Takahata was less inclined toward adventure stories, big action sequences, or overt visual flourishes, though he could and did pull off all of them at various points in his career. His genius lay in his effortless ability to portray the mundane — something not often associated with the motion-focused energy of animation. He brought this grounding even to the most fantastical settings and characters, and the result was a deep-seated humanity running through his entire oeuvre.
This is evident from his first feature, 1968’s The Great Adventure of Horus, Prince of the Sun, considered groundbreaking not just for its fluid animation but also for its serious treatment of its characters’ psychology within a genre and form generally relegated to being “for kids.” (As a comparison point, think of how the Harry Potter series would be praised for its handling of more mature themes decades later, although Horus was a flop at the time instead of a worldwide phenomenon.) Takahata was unwilling to settle for what was expected of his film, leading his crew through a three-year production process which was originally scheduled to only last the usual 10 months.
Takahata delved head-on into almost total realism for some of his most acclaimed movies. Grave of the Fireflies tells the story of a teen boy and his four-year-old sister trying to survive on their own on the Japanese home front in World War II. Takahata combined his own experiences of the war with those of the author of the short story on which the film was based. The story develops an increasing, harrowing tragedy as it contrasts scenes like the young girl making “rice balls” out of mud with small moments of joy, like shaking the last piece of candy out of a tin or her brother delighting her by splashing her in the bath.
Realism and cartoonish exaggeration played off of one another in Only Yesterday, which switches back and forth between the protagonist’s present and past. While the present-day sections feature minute attention to detail in the character designs and movements and backgrounds, the flashbacks use simpler models, are drawn with sharper colors, and have a good deal of blank space in the backgrounds. This deftly conveys the contrast between childhood and adulthood, as well as the vague nature of remembering one’s past.
Pom Poko is perhaps the best example of Takahata’s storytelling attitude. Heavily steeped in traditional Japanese folklore, it sees a group of tanuki (raccoon dogs) banding together with their magical abilities to fight the human developers encroaching on their forest. Yet though it is epic in scope and length, Pom Poko is not a war movie, but an extended exploration of direct action, an acute commentary on both the environmental destruction and the grassroots political movements in Japan throughout the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s. The film frequently uses exaggerated motion and caricature for humor, but this belies a growing sense of melancholy over what is lost to the forces of progress, and the ways a community can and can’t become greater by coming together.
As the 20th century neared its end, Takahata directed Ghibli’s first all-digital film, and used that endless canvas to innovative effect. Though a simple, low-budget family comedy built around a series of vignettes, My Neighbors the Yamadas often experiments with its visuals. Based on a comic strip, the movie plays out as if it is continually being “drawn” before the audience. A scene will end not with a cut, but with the “camera” floating away to a different scene. In the same way that Only Yesterday selectively incorporates blank backgrounds, Yamadas makes deliberate use of negative space, only penciling in the broadest strokes necessary to depict its characters and their surroundings. The minimalism evokes haiku poetry, and indeed, multiple poets are quoted throughout. The mundane settings and slice-of-life story act as a vector for the film’s wistfulness over the transience of the everyday.
All of Takahata’s techniques were brought together for his masterpiece and final film, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya. Retelling Japan’s oldest-known prose narrative, the movie consists of gorgeous watercolors rather than traditional anime art. Like Only Yesterday, that style shifts with time, becoming more detailed and rich as the title character ages, growing from the simple pleasures of childhood to the complicated challenges of young adulthood. Once again, despite the fantasy setting, the focus is less on external action than it is on Kaguya’s interior life. She has been sent to Earth from a heavenly realm to experience humanity, and the film frames this through a more universal depiction of adolescent self-actualization. In one astonishing sequence, an overwhelmed Kaguya flees into the wilderness and the art itself frays apart, the lines becoming jagged and sketchy, movement rendered in vicious scribbles.
Takahata recognized animation’s potential for serious storytelling and nuanced explorations of emotional complexities back when it was seen chiefly as a vehicle for cheap children’s entertainment. (A popular perception that animation still struggles with to this day.) His disinterest in adhering to trends also kept him artistically fresh well into old age. As a result, any one of his films, from any period, makes for a vastly different — but equally compelling — viewing experience.