Isao Takahata’s stark world of reality

Director’s childhood experiences have shaped his views on animation and attempts to revise the country’s pacifist Constitution

by

Staff Writer

Having survived a devastating U.S. air raid on his hometown in World War II, film director Isao Takahata has firsthand experience of the horrors of war. It’s perhaps not surprising, therefore, that he staunchly opposes Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s attempt to push controversial security bills through the Diet.

There is an ancient Roman proverb, Takahata says during an interview at Studio Ghibli in Tokyo’s Koganei neighborhood: “If you want peace, prepare for war.”

Takahata, one of the country’s most influential animation filmmakers and co-founder of Studio Ghibli, says he prefers French poet Jacques Prevert’s 1953 version: “If you don’t want war, repair peace.”

“You cannot keep the peace by picking up a weapon,” Takahata says. “It must be achieved through diplomacy, which had in fact been Japan’s position until recently. Now, however, Abe wants to turn Japan into a country that can go to war.”

The war-renouncing Constitution has remained untouched since it took effect in 1947. Conservative lawmakers such as Abe have long argued for the revision of the charter, which was drafted during the Allied Occupation. Indeed, one of the founding principles of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party is to revise the Constitution.

Takahata, the award-winning director of “Grave of the Fireflies,” an animated film about two sibling’s desperate struggle to survive World War II, opposes such moves.

He is one of the founding members of Eigajin Kyujo no Kai (Cineasts for Article 9), which seeks to protect the pacifist clause from an “undesirable amendment.”

Article 9 of the Constitution stipulates that “the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes.” The government has maintained that Japan can only use military force in self-defense.

Instead of revising the Constitution — which needs to be backed by at least two-thirds of lawmakers in both chambers of the Diet and a majority of support in a referendum — Abe has decided to alter the government’s interpretation of the charter.

“The situation at present is extremely dangerous,” says Takahata, 79. “It’s wonderful that we have been able to celebrate the 70th anniversary of World War II’s end. However, it’s important to ensure things stay this way so we are able to celebrate the 100th anniversary.”

‘Lucky to make it out alive’

Isao Takahata was born in the city of Ujiyamada (now Ise), Mie Prefecture, in 1935. The youngest of seven siblings, he grew up in Okayama Prefecture and was just 9 years old when the U.S. bombed his hometown on June 29, 1945.

Takahata fled his home in terror during the air raid, running away barefoot in his pajamas with one of his sisters. The incendiary bombs started a firestorm that tore through the city. “We were lucky to make it out alive,” he says.

Takahata recalls seeing piles of dead bodies on the streets as the pair made their way back home. The rest of his family, meanwhile, survived the bombing by hiding in an air-raid shelter in their garden and Takahata was able to join them the following day.

He vividly remembers the moment he was reunited with his mother. It wasn’t the joyous occasion that typically occurs in such circumstances and he showed little emotion other than giving his mother an embarrassed smile. The pangs of regret that followed this moment were to inspire Takahata to give the title character in his 1974 television series “Heidi, Girl of the Alps” such personality.

“Heidi’s carefree nature stems from my ideal image of what a child should be like — something I couldn’t be,” Takahata says. “I’ve since realized that adults shouldn’t try to determine a child’s personality and so I now ensure my characters are more realistic.”

Takahata incorporated some of his experiences during the air raid on the city of Okayama into his 1988 film “Grave of the Fireflies.” The film shows bombs destroying the town where 14-year-old Seita and his 4-year-old sister, Setsuko, live. The fire bombs make a loud hissing sound as they fall from the sky.

“Many TV shows and movies that feature incendiary bombs are not accurate,” Takahata says. “They include no sparks or explosions. I was there and I experienced it, so I know what it was like.”

The director says he wanted to use a structure similar to Japanese films that play on the emotions surrounding a double suicide plotline — the tragic ending is revealed to the audience at the start of the film before the storyline returns to happier times and shows how the couple’s situation worsens from there. “Grave of the Fireflies” opens with a scene showing Seita dying and being reunited with Setsuko, who has already passed away.

“It’s traumatizing for an audience to see the lives of two happy people deteriorate over time until they die tragically,” Takahata says. “If an audience knows at the beginning of the film that the two will eventually die, they are more prepared to watch the film in the first place. I try to lessen an audience’s pain by revealing everything at the beginning.”

Takahata depicts the two main characters in the film as ghosts in an attempt to reflect Japanese people’s views on life and death. He notes how people generally believe that the spirits of their loved ones stay around to protect them from harm. At the same time, he says, people also feel their ancestors keep an eye on them to prevent them from doing anything wrong.

“The film provided me with an opportunity to explore a new form of expression in animation by capturing the world these two children lived in,” Takahata says. “I also wanted to reveal what people do when they are driven into a corner.”

Objectivity in movies

Takahata first entered the world of animation in 1959, joining what is now called Toei Animation after graduating from the University of Tokyo where he majored in French literature. He landed his first job in the lead director’s chair in 1963 with the TV series “Ken the Wolf Boy.”

It was at Toei Animation that Takahata met a man who would become his lifelong friend and co-founder of Studio Ghibli, Hayao Miyazaki. Miyazaki, who is about five years younger than Takahata, joined Toei Animation in 1963.

Surprisingly, Takahata and Miyazaki first met through the studio’s labor union activities. From there, the pair began to work together on various animation projects, including “Lupin III Part 1″ and “Heidi, Girl of the Alps.”

Takahata recalls his early days with Miyazaki fondly, describing him as a “lively young man.”

“We became friends immediately,” Takahata says. “We talked about all manner of things — from what kind of animation we wanted to create to life in general. And once we began working together, he showed tremendous talent.”

After moving around a few animation companies together, Takahata and Miyazaki founded Studio Ghibli in 1985. The studio became home to a number of award-winning animation films, including Takahata’s “The Tale of Princess Kaguya,” which was nominated for the 2015 Academy Awards, and “Only Yesterday,” which will be released in the U.S. in the winter of 2016. Meanwhile, Miyazaki went on to create films such as “My Neighbor Totoro” and the Oscar-winning “Spirited Away.”

Takahata says he recognized Miyazaki’s talent early on and avoided referencing common threads that appeared in his work.

“It wasn’t that I didn’t like what he was doing, I just couldn’t compete with him,” Takahata says. “I was very conscious of making films that he would steer clear of, and I hear he was doing the same as far as I was concerned. We remain close but have not worked together for a long time.”

Takahata describes his relationship with Miyazaki as one of mutual understanding to the point where they can both criticize each other’s work.

“We would never criticize each other face to face because it would just cause a fight. However, I know he has criticized my work,” Takahata says with a laugh. “I don’t mind at all because that is how our relationship is. We enjoy each other’s company without getting into a discussion about our films.”

Takahata’s signature films all strive to be as realistic as possible, even if they include fantasy elements. “Pom Poko,” for example, follows a group of raccoon dogs that are trying to save their home, while “The Tale of Princess Kaguya” is the story of a small princess found in a bamboo tree — and yet, in Takahata’s hands, their stories take on a sense of realism.

However, Takahata draws the line at fantasy characters who have superpowers that enable them to do the impossible.

“I’m not saying fantasy is bad. I myself enjoy the genre from time to time. However, I don’t agree with getting an audience excited by seeing a character do something incredible that defies logic,” he says.

“Too many films these days feature characters who overcome difficulties using nothing more than the power of love and/or courage,” he says.

The improvement of computer graphics over the past decade has changed the world of animation, helping to breathe new life into fantasy. Since “Toy Story,” the first full-length CG animation film, was released in 1995, several box-office hits have emerged, including Pixar’s “Monsters, Inc.” and “Finding Nemo.” Walt Disney Animations Studios has won the Academy Award for best animated feature for the past two years, with “Frozen” taking the title in 2014 and “Big Hero 6″ beating Takahata’s “The Tale of Princess Kaguya” in 2015.

The real-life images, however, leave little room for imagination, Takahata says.

“(Before computer graphics), animation was only flat and two-dimensional. It could never be truly real,” Takahata says. “But that was the point: By keeping everything flat, animation allows viewers to imagine what is behind the images.”

Ghibli’s animated films have also changed the preconceived idea that animation is for children. Adults can enjoy them as much as children, and those who rewatch a Takahata film as an adult may notice that their impressions of the film or characters change.

Unlike typical children’s movies, which inevitably feature an evil character that plays opposite the protagonist, Takahata’s movies are more objective in nature. In his world, life is never really black or white.

“Children often believe adults are better or worse than they actually are,” he says. “I want to depict real adults, not just characters that exist solely to threaten children.”

Conflict prevention

Takahata has won numerous domestic and international awards, including the Medal with Purple Ribbon in 1998 and the Leopard of Honor at the Locarno International Film Festival in 2009. He was also honored as Officer of the French Order of Arts and Letters in April 2015, not only for his films but also for his translations of French poems into Japanese.

The 70th anniversary of World War II’s end was marked on Aug. 15 and domestic media organizations ran their standard fare on war and peace, including Takahata’s “Grave of the Fireflies.”

Meanwhile, “Nihon no Ichiban Nagai Hi” (“The Emperor in August”), a remake of the 1967 version internationally known as “Japan’s Longest Day,” was also released in August, showing the complexity of how the decision to surrender was made. Director Masato Harada has stated that it is an anti-war film.

Somewhat surprisingly, however, Takahata says “Grave of the Fireflies” is not an anti-war film despite depicting the tragedy caused by World War II.

Just talking about the atrocities of war will not prevent another war from happening, he says, because there will always be people who insist that Japan needs to strengthen its military so that it never suffers such an ignominious defeat again.

“Japan was devastated by the war,” Takahata says. “We should never forget that, just as we should never forget that we also inflicted a lot of suffering on other countries. However, nobody knows how horrifying a war is going to be at the beginning of hostilities. ‘Grave of the Fireflies’ isn’t an anti-war film simply because it cannot prevent another war from happening.”

Besides his film-making activities, Takahata now speaks at lectures and symposiums. He also participates in protest movements to oppose Abe’s security bills to stop Japan from “becoming a country that can go to war.”

Eigajin Kyujo no Kai, which includes Takahata and film director Yoji Yamada, has issued a statement that claims Abe’s “war bills” will “completely destroy Article 9.” The statement has been endorsed by 751 people in the film industry, including award-winning actresses Sayuri Yoshinaga and Chieko Baisho as of Sept. 10.

With the ruling Liberal Democratic Party-Komeito coalition holding a majority in both chambers of the Diet, the bills are set to be passed as early as this week. Takahata, however, refuses to give up.

“I plan to continue protesting even if the bills are enacted because they clearly violate the Constitution,” he says. “When the time is right, I believe we can scrap it.”


Takahata films you must see

“Grave of the Fireflies” (1988)

Isao Takahata’s “Grave of the Fireflies” was the first Studio Ghibli film that was neither written nor directed by Hayao Miyazaki. Based on a semiautobiographical short story by Akiyuki Nosaka, this melodramatic war film tells the story of two siblings, Seita and Setsuko, and their desperate struggle to survive the final months of World War II.

“Pom Poko” (1994)

Directed and written by Takahata, “Pom Poko” focuses on a group of tanuki (raccoon dogs). The magical shape-shifting creatures stop fighting among themselves for the diminishing resources and unite in a fight to protect their pastoral land from deforestation and urban development.

“The Tale of Princess Kaguya” (2013)

“The Tale of Princess Kaguya” is Takahata’s most-recent film for Studio Ghibli. Based on a 10th-century Japanese folktale titled “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter,” the hand-drawn film follows the fate of a young princess who is found inside a bamboo stalk.

“Heidi, Girl of the Alps” (1974)

Takahata directed a 52-episode anime series for TV titled “Heidi: Girl of the Alps.” The classical tale is one of several World Masterpiece Theater titles and the program follows the adventures of Heidi, a cheerful young girl who lives in the Swiss Alps with her grandfather. Takahata visited Switzerland and Germany to find locations to use in the animation.

“Only Yesterday” (1991)

Written and directed by Takahata, “Only Yesterday” is a realistic drama that attracted large male and female audiences. The story revolves around a 27-year-old woman named Taeko who steps away from the busy city to re-evaluate her life in her rural hometown of Yamagata Prefecture. The popular film is based on a manga of the same name created by Hotaru Okamoto and Yuko Tone.

  • Nippon Jeikobu

    As usual, no love for 「ホーホケキョとなりの山田くん」(My Neighbors the Yamadas). It is such an underrated film, full of charm and humor in every moment. I laugh and smile every time I watch it. It’s so fun and I think is relatable for so many families.

    • Liz M

      My Neighbors the Yamada’s is one of my favorites! :)