Sunday, April 8, 2018

In Memoriam: Isao Takahata

            A giant has left us.  Several days ago, on April 5th, 2018, Isao Takahata, co-founder of Studio Ghibli, died.  He was 82. 

            This is a heavy blow to anyone who considers themselves an anime fan.  Takahata was, in many ways, often overshadowed in the public eye by his longtime collaborator and Ghibli co-founder Hayao Miyazaki, who is certainly better-known to most casual filmgoers, but everyone who has followed Studio Ghibli knows just how deeply the two depended on and supported each other throughout their careers.  Each would likely never have had the sustained success they’ve had without the other. 

            Often referred to as the “animator who can’t draw,” Takahata long carried the nickname “Paku-San” around the Ghibli office; he would often come in each morning loudly chomping on bread, the Japanese onamonapia for which is “paku-paku.”  He was often teased by his co-workers for being comparatively lazy and laid-back, especially when compared to Miyazaki’s legendary work obsession.  In his afterward to a book cataloguing the studio’s early years, he credited their professional partnership as being one of the driving forces behind his achievements, writing, “It is through Hayao Miyazaki’s very existence that I have always felt scolded for my slothlike tendencies, been made to feel guilty, been cornered into doing work, and had something greater than whatever limited talents I might possess squeezed out of me.”

            However they were brought out of him, willingly or no, Takahata’s works will indelibly stand alongside Miyazaki’s as not just great animated films, but as some of the greatest films of all time.  He was never as prolific, per say, as others, being credited as the director for just five of Ghibli’s feature films to Miyazaki’s nine, but each film project he did choose has had a striking impact, and revealed a mind capable of working through a cast array of artistic styles and story types. 

            His most well-known and arguably most influential film, 1988’s Grave of the Fireflies, is a realistic-looking, devastating portrayal of Japan during WWII, one that Roger Ebert argued had to be on any serious list of the greatest war movies ever made.  He followed this with a meditative work on childhood, country life, memory with Only Yesterday (1991), a film whose tone could not have been more different, and after that, he made the even more bizarre and fantastical Pom Poko (1994).  My Neighbors the Yamadas, released five years later, was yet another wild departure, a series of slice-of-life vignettes from a typical, middle-class Japanese family, drawn in an almost comically child-like style. 

            For whatever reason, he didn’t head another major project with the company until nearly a decade-and-a-half later.  But when he finally did return to the directing chair, the result was an artistic thunderbolt.  2013’s The Tale of Princess Kaguya not only ranks as one of the best works in the Ghibli canon, I have fervently argued on more than one occasion that it deserves to be considered one of the greatest films of all time.  It now turns out that it will stand as his final feature film, but my God, what a note to go out on. 

            Takahata may be gone, but his works resonate with such power and force that his memory will long outlive us all.  Every film of his is worth seeing, and if you haven’t seen any of them yet, now is as good a time to start as any. 

            Arigatou gozaimasu, Paku-San.  You are already sorely missed, but you will never be forgotten. 

-Noah Franc

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