To many fans of his work, they may not have recognised the name immediately when his death made headlines in news portals all over the world. But that was the legend of Isao Takahata’s legacy. The brilliant animator and director was less concerned with being recognised as one of the most influential figures in the global animation industry; instead he kept his focus on how he could challenge the medium. This was how he spent his 50 years as a co-founder of Studio Ghibli and independent director – giving the world fantastical stories that we’ll be sure to make even our children’s children watch.
The Life and Times of Isao Takahata
Isao Takahata passed away on Thursday at the age of 82 in a Tokyo hospital after going through a bout of ill health for some time. With his passing, he has left an impressive path for young animators to follow in his way. This surprisingly began with his lack of animation skills at the beginning of his career, a struggle that Takahata sought to break out of by working as a director in the industry first.
He began his incredible career with a box office failure, The Great Adventures Of Horus, Prince Of The Sun (1968) which led to a demotion at the Toei Animation Company. It was a cult success for later generations, as he infused his stories with viewpoints on social issues in children’s animations. While the children may not have enjoyed it as much, the film was slowly regarded as a pioneer in animation films for adults. This was in fact one of Takahata’s many visions – to give animations the credit it deserves with its innovative expressions of imagery, fantastical elements and its ability to tell a rich and compelling story at the same time. This legacy birthed an uncountable number of serious and realistic anime films and series and has had an impact on many current Western animations (Adventure Time, Over the Garden Wall, Steven Universe) that have begun to take themselves seriously as well.
Yet at the time of this failure, Takahata sought to keep his vision alive amidst animation companies that targeted only children. It led to his first collaboration with the esteemed Hayao Miyazaki, leading them to start the venture of Studio Ghibli in 1985 which would lead to 50 years of globally acclaimed animation. The duo has been described by Japanese media as both friends and rivals, creating a dynamic of Miyazaki drawing the animations himself and Takahata focusing on the dramatics and brushing up the themes and expressions. Their rivalry could be seen more as healthy competition, with the both of them sharing the same love for fantasy and healthy doses of culture, history and reality all while trying to top both each other and themselves.
Takahata and Miyazaki quickly became known as animation giants, with Takahata building traction for himself in Japan by producing icons like Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984) and Castle in the Sky (1986). He cemented his style before this with the anime series Heidi, A Girl of the Alps (1974) that featured his signature style of delicately describing the everyday life of a normal person and the things they must go through. Studio Ghibli’s classics like My Neighbour Totoro (1998) and Princess Mononoke (1997) only served to give him the credit he deserved by breaking box office records in Japan, eventually making them break through to the West when Spirited Away (2001) won the Oscar for best animated movie in 2003. Since then, the studio has just been giving us instant classics like The Cat Returns (2002), Howl’s Moving Castle (2004) and Ponyo (2008).
However, we can’t forget what is considered to be Takahata’s greatest achievement yet, Grave of the Fireflies (1988). This moving tale is one of love, tragedy and the bond between brothers as a pair of 4-year-old and 14-year-old brothers navigate through Kobe, Japan in the final days and hours of World War 2. It was momentous for his career because Takahata’s vision was in proving that animation could handle, and perhaps be better at it than live-action, a serious and dramatic story. Takahata’s deep knowledge on Japanese history and culture as well as his focus on giving animations a variety of expressions while paying attention to the most minute details is what has given this film a profound and introspective look into Japanese society and its wartime struggles. It’s the reason Grave of the Fireflies and many of his movies become the celebrated classics they are today.
“If I have seen further than others, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” It takes a great artist to have the drive to climb those shoulders, and the vision to take it even further. But it takes a legend to grow yourself and your art to those gigantic proportions. Rest in peace, Isao Takahata, and thank you for letting the world stand on your shoulders.