Film | Wide Angle

Isao Takahata’s gentle spirit enriched the world of Japanese animation

by Mark Schilling

Contributing Writer

Isao Takahata, who died on Thursday at age 82, was long overshadowed by Studio Ghibli colleague Hayao Miyazaki, even though he was Miyazaki’s senior when they both worked together at Toei Animation in the 1960s, as well as a co-founder, together with Miyazaki and producer Toshio Suzuki, of Ghibli in 1985. With “Pom Poko,” a 1994 animated fantasy set in the Tama Hills near Tokyo, Takahata even briefly rivaled Miyazaki as a box office force: The film was that year’s biggest domestic hit.

But Miyazaki, with his outsized personality and drive, as well as his undeniable talent, became the face of Ghibli to the world at large. If this bothered the gentle-spirited Takahata he never showed it, at least when this writer interviewed him in 1996 for The Japan Times.

“I don’t want to make the same kinds of films as he does,” Takahata said. “To use an expression from sumo, I want to fight my bouts in a different dohyō (wrestling ring). In that way I think we can better enrich Japanese animation and please Japanese audiences.”

That he fought those bouts superbly is evident from not only the honors he won, including an Oscar nomination, but also the esteem of fans and critics, including this one. I put off seeing his first Ghibli feature, “Grave of the Fireflies” (1988), for years because I knew it would be emotionally hard to take. When I finally sat down with this animated film about a teenage boy trying and failing to care for his 4-year-old sister amid the privations of World War II, I had exactly the reaction I had feared: Overwhelming grief. If there is a better film — animated or not — about the human cost of war I have yet to see it.

Takahata’s late-career masterpiece, the 2013 film “The Tale of the Princess Kaguya,” also had a searing pathos, but his source, a 10th-century folktale about the sojourn on Earth of a princess from the moon, was deeply traditional. Takahata’s visual treatment, however, was anything but conventional: With its delicate pastel colors and bold, dynamic lines, the film was like impressionistic watercolors come to shimmering life. Another Takahata trademark, the story’s emphasis on realistic emotions, was also much in evidence, as in the princess’ farewell to all she has loved as she returns to her lunar home. Its evocation of mono no aware — awareness of life’s transience — cuts straight to the heart.

This film, nearly eight years in the making, also proved to be Takahata’s farewell to directing, though he was artistic producer on Dutch animator Michael Dudok de Wit’s 2016 film “The Red Turtle.” As a pop culture phenomenon and industry powerhouse, Takahata never challenged Miyazaki. He was also never an animator like his famously prolific colleague, who churned out drawings as readily as breathing. But as an artist realizing the potential of his medium to tell eternal truths, Takahata was a giant.