why the themes isao takahata explored were so important
Following his death last week, we take a look at the poignant ways Studio Ghibli director Isao Takahata dealt with real life issues through a mystical lens.
Grave of the Fireflies
Over the last five decades, Isao Takahata has played a crucial role in shaping the course of Japanese animation. Yet, while the animator, writer and director has received critical acclaim and numerous awards for his work, he never quite reached the cult status of Studio Ghibli co-founder Hayao Miyazaki. But there was something markedly more profound about Takahata’s work than the heightened, magical realism so often found in Ghibli films and many Japanese animations. Where some of Miyazaki’s most famous work -- Howl’s Moving Castle and My Neighbour Totoro -- came to define the studio’s reputation as a fantastical storyteller for children and adults alike, with imagery of friendly forest spirits and furry catbuses, Takahata created movies that were rooted in the magic of everyday moments.
Like his 1999 film My Neighbours the Yamadas, a vignette-style insight into the lives of a conventional family, focussing on their day-to-day -- from losing a child in a department store to getting a first girlfriend, everything is handled with humour and relatability. Or in Grave of the Fireflies, which is equally realistic in style -- albeit offering a more horrific vision of existence. Set in the final months of World War II, the story follows two siblings and their struggle to survive as bombs fall on their city. The film is filled with the fleeting moments of tenderness that defines his work.
Isao’s films express a way of storytelling that shows that you do not need a fantasy world to experience magic, and that even in the most mundane situations there can fantasy. Below, we take a look at some of the major themes explored in Takahata’s legacy.
Studio Ghibli is widely recognised for creating films with young female protagonists. These characters are like us: they are insecure, they can be rude, they worry too much. Taeko in Only Yesterday, for example, is a 27-year-old single woman who works in an office in Tokyo, with a family who nag her about not being married. Isao takes us through Taeko’s childhood -- normal yet meaningful moments that shape her adult life. As with most Ghibli films, Taeko’s resolution doesn’t come in the arms of a man, but in her own self-realisation.
In The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, which Takahata adapted from an ancient folktale about a child who grows from the stalk of a bamboo plant, the director swaps the protagonist’s gender from male to female to highlight the film’s patriarchal narrative. The plot centres on a princess who is moved to the capital by her adopted parents to find a husband befitting to her royal status. Again, the female protagonist is placed in a position of doubt, with her wants and goals seemingly separate to that of her parents. A dream sequence where Kaguya bursts through a series of doors, which presumably represent the barriers she faces from her family and society, embodies one of the film’s main themes -- that self-belief is crucial to fulfilment.
Only Yesterday moves back and forth between the present-day and past memories. In the final scene, both time frames merge together as Taeko is ushered back to the countryside by her younger self, symbolising a return to her own wants and desires. Her coming-of-age moment is expressed in the rediscovery of her inner-child. In contrast, Seita’s character in Grave of the Fireflies is an example of growing up prematurely. Described by Takahata as “a unique wartime ninth grader”, Seita is thrust into adulthood with the loss of his mother in a US air strike. What follows is a swift transition from early adolescence to adulthood, becoming the primary carer of his younger sister. The responsibilities thrust onto Seita tear his childhood away.
Like his long-term collaborator Miyazaki, who Takahata worked with on post-apocalyptic conservation film Nausica ä of the Valley of the Wind, environmentalism appears in all of Takahata’s movies. His 1994 film Pom Poko is perhaps the best example of this. The plot involves a group of Japanese raccoon dogs called tanuki, who have powers of shapeshifting, which they use to stop housing construction on their homeland. In the final scene, the character Ponkichi addresses the viewer, asking them to treat tanuki and other animals more considerately by not destroying their natural habitat. The camera then zooms out to heartbreakingly reveal that the tanuki are in fact living on a golf course within the city.
Unlike Princess Mononoke, directed by Miyazaki in 2001, which gives a universal portrayal of nature, by looking at different animals, human tribes and individuals, Pom Poko focuses narrowly on a small, select group of raccoon dogs. It not only offers a personal account of the individuals affected by urbanisation, but also handles it with humour. The viewer is not forced into guilt, but instead chooses to be moved by the tanuki’s relatability.