In 2013, cinema-goers finally got to see The Tale Of The Princess Kaguya, a stunning animated folklore tale that took somewhere in the region of five years to make and a budget of about $49 million – making it the most expensive hand-drawn film in Japanese history. The movie was a triumph: tender, beautifully rendered in a style that evoked traditional Japanese brush paintings, and full of humanity. Regrettably, it would also prove to be director Isao Takahata’s last film.
Over night, news outlets in Japan have reported that Takahata died in a Tokyo hospital following a long illness. He was 82.
Although less commonly in the spotlight than Studio Ghibli’s other co-founder, Hayao Miyazaki, his contribution to Japan’s most famous animation house can hardly be underestimated. Takahata’s output was slow – Miyazaki sometimes dubbed him “the sloth” – but his films were always worth waiting for. Grave Of The Fireflies, released in 1988 and perhaps his most famous work, was a devastating drama about the Second World War, seen through the eyes of two young and desperately vulnerable characters.
Only Yesterday (1991) was a soulful drama about a woman returning to the town of her birth, and constantly surprised by the memories that swim back into her mind. Pom Poko (1994) was an adventure and eco-fable about the industrialisation of Japan – as seen from the perspective of shape-shifting raccoon dogs. My Neighbors The Yamadas (1999) told a series of gentle stories about an average Japanese family.
When work began on The Tale Of The Princess Kaguya in the late 2000s, it was originally supposed to be a double-feature with Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises, then billed as the latter animator’s final movie before his retirement. In the end, Princess Kaguya wound up missing its release window by several months, as Takahata and his team wrestled with production. Indeed, one producer on the movie half-joked that Takahata didn’t really want to finish it.
One of the most bewitching films ever to emerge from Studio Ghibli, Princess Kaguya sums up a great deal about Takahata’s talent as a storyteller. Unlike Miyazaki, Takahata didn’t draw his films himself; all the same, his talent was plain to see, his style of storytelling visibly distinct from Miyazaki’s. Takahata brought a kind of hyper-realism to his animation: a sense of stark realism that only occasionally rubbed up against a thread of fantasy.
As one of Studio Ghibli’s leading creative lights, Isao Takahata’s contribution can’t be underestimated. His passing is a huge loss to filmmaking, but his memory lives on through a small yet beautiful series of classic movies.