Isao Takahata interview: The Tale Of The Princess Kaguya

Animator Isao Takahata's latest and possibly final film, The Tale Of The Princess Kaguya, is out this week. He talks about its making.

Isao Takahata’s importance in the foundation of Studio Ghibli, and the history of anime as a whole, really can’t be underestimated. Having broken into the industry in the 1960s, when he joined Toei Animation, the studio where he first met a young Hayao Miyazaki.

Takahata gradually climbed the ranks at Toei through the mid-1960s, directing TV episodes of Wolf Boy Ken before making his feature debut with Horus, Prince Of The Sun. It was here that Takahata first collaborated with Miyazaki, who was then working as a key frame animator but also contributed many of the ideas for the film’s major set-pieces.

Prince Of The Sun wasn’t a hit – Takahata was even demoted following its financial failure – but it was a vital step in the director’s career as an filmmaker. By the 1970s, Takahata and Miyazaki had left Toei and begun working on such projects as Lupin III, Heidi, Girl Of The Alps, and Panda! Go Panda!

Takahata continued to direct through the 1970s and early 80s; his adaptation of 3000 Leagues In Search Of Mother and Anne Of Green Gableswere successes on television, yet his time on the big-screen film Little Nemo in 1982 sadly came to nothing. (The disappointingLittle Nemo: Adventures In Slumberlandfinally emerged in 1989; we can only wonder, based on animation excerpts, what Takahata and Miyazaki’s version might have been like.)

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It was later in the ’80s, within the retreat of Studio Ghibli, that Takahata’s work flourished. In the studio he co-founded with Miyazaki and producer Toshio Suzuki, he had the chance to stretch out and experiment; where Miyazaki’s films were fantastical, Takahata’s were more grounded and experimental.

Grave Of The Fireflies, for some his masterwork, was hailed as one of the best war films ever made by Roger Ebert. Only Yesterday was a delightful animated drama about growing up and falling in love. Pom Poko was a moving, unexpectedly funny environmental parable told through the eyes of a community of shape-shifting tanukiMy Neighbours The Yamadas, a comedy about an average Japanese family, was marked out by its unusual, fluid visual style.

All of which brings us to The Tale Of The Princess Kaguya, a film on a par with Grave Of The Fireflies in terms of storytelling and captivating imagery. A seemingly slight yarn about a supernatural girl forced into the role of a noblewoman by her well-meaning yet grasping father, it’s a film of stunning artistry and depth. It’s also, quite possibly, the 79-year-old director’s final work.

As Princess Kaguya opens in UK cinemas, it was an honour to be able to put some questions to Takahata about the making of his film. Here’s what he had to say…

Is Princess Kaguya‘s animation style about getting back to the purity of a simple brush-stroke, to make it look as though you’re sketching a moment as it unfolds?

It is just as you say. With the advances in 3D, animation films are increasingly going in the direction toward live-action style images. Yet, rather than drawing in every detail and depicting something as if the real thing were there, paintings inherently have the great power to stir up the viewer’s vivid imagination and memory when the brush is used sparingly to give an impression of the real thing.

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I chose this style because I didn’t want people to forget this. The lines drawn here are not just the contours of the real things, but rather ways to instantaneously capture the expression of those things. And if there is movement, then they are the “pictures” that vividly capture the force of the movement.

This technique of giving expression to the line and leaving blank spaces so that the entire surface of the painting is not filled, which engages the viewer’s imagination, is one that holds an important place not only in traditional paintings of China and Japan, but also in sketches in Western drawings. What I have done is to attempt to bring this technique to animation. 

Is this why you chose this particular story to tell, because the purity of the animation seems to feed into the story’s themes: the princess herself is far happier when she’s young, before other people’s idea of what is beautiful is imposed on her. The film seems to be about getting back to a state of innocence and purity.

Yes it is, but I had intended to create the images in this style no matter what film I would make. I aimed to depict everything on the screen, the characters and nature, in a vibrant way with lively motion by using this style. In particular, after I met Osamu Tanabe, who was the directing animator on this film, I felt unable to consider any other style.

How important was My Neighbours The Yamadas in establishing the style of Princess Kaguya? Did it serve as a proving ground for the techniques you’d use in the film?

If one wants to depict a world that no one has seen, and have strange characters act within that world, one needs to create a space with shading and coloration that look as real as possible. This is necessary for people to believe in that fantasy. But My Neighbours The Yamadas concerns a very ordinary reality. Rather than depict that as a virtual reality, I thought it would be better to make the drawings simple to encourage the viewer to see what is behind what is real.

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My idea was that the viewers could have their imagination and memory stirred to feel the reality of people and things behind the screen in the unfinished drawings shown by lines that are broken or vigorous, spaces left blank, and unsteady movements. This was my intent more than the use of animation film technique employing thick or thin lines drawn by pencil or the washed look of coloured pencils.

Unless the all-important drawings are good, this intention cannot be achieved. It was Osamu Tanabe, who worked with me on My Neighbours The Yamadas, who took charge of character creation and designed their expressions and actions and worked on the layout and other aspects.

The background art with its look of transparency was created by art director Kazuo Oga, who worked with me on Only Yesterday and Pom Poko. The entire staff worked very hard on this film, but it would have been impossible to come up with this expression without these two as the central figures. This film is due to the brilliant abilities of these two.

Did adapting a folk tale like the Bamboo Cutter mean that you could apply your own personal themes? It seems to me that Princess Kaguya is about the cyclical nature of life and the brevity of happiness – things that, if I’m not mistaken, weren’t in the original folk story.

I agree with your point. The songs sung in the film were meant to give praise to the Earth, this star where we live, for its marvellous cycle of life. And my effort was to show how The Princess Kaguya fully enjoyed the richness of life on Earth that is filled with colour and all sorts of creatures as well as the joy of living and of forming emotional bonds.

How important was it to make Princess Kaguya a modern as well as sympathetic character? She’s headstrong and independent – a true Ghibli heroine.

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I have always made films sympathetic to female characters. I had no interest in presenting this tenth century literary classic as if I were unfurling an old scroll painting. I aspired to follow the original story line rather faithfully, yet revive it in a lively and fresh way to give the story an entirely different impression from the original tale. That is, to narrate the “true story” of The Princess Kaguya that modern people can fully accept. The key to this approach was the concept I had of why The Princess Kaguya, who was from the Moon, came down to Earth.

The result was that the Japanese audience was able to understand The Princess Kaguya’s feelings at different stages of the story, and they were surprised and moved that, rather than being incomprehensible, she had become a person with whom they could empathise. I have faith that my Tale Of The Princess Kaguyarepresents a very modern sensibility.

I have made many works of animation with young girls as the main characters from even before the founding of Studio Ghibli. This film is part of that flow, but I’m not particularly conscious of there being a Ghibli heroine type.

I absolutely loved Princess Kaguya’s handmaiden, Menowarawa. Could you explain a little bit about how you came up with her? She’s such a funny, touching character.

I wanted to have a limited number of characters for the film and to give them concise and symbolic roles. It was the wonderfully gifted Osamu Tanabe who grasped that concept and brought out the charm of Menowarawa’s character. 

I’ve read that this is likely to be your final feature film. If this is true, do you think you might turn to a smaller project, like an animated short for the Ghibli Museum, or maybe television, instead?

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I do have a plan for a film that I desire to make, but I am now 79 years old. If I still have the physical stamina, will, and mental powers left in me, and there are people who will invest in it, a producer who will manage it all, and if I am blessed with the kind of collaborators I had on this project, I would like to make another film. But this would require a miracle, so when I consider whether it is possible or impossible, I think it is more likely to be impossible.

Isao Takahata, thank you very much.