The film that inspired Studio Ghibli

In an exclusive extract, Studio Ghibli master Isao Takahata (Grave of the Fireflies) tells us about the film that opened his eyes to the possibilities of animation: pioneering French classic The King and the Mockingbird.

Isao Takahata

Concept drawing by director Paul Grimault for The King and the Mockingbird (1980)

Concept drawing by director Paul Grimault for The King and the Mockingbird (1980)

Characters in pictures come to life and start living real lives – how interesting! When I was a student I was obsessed by the animated film La Bergère et le Ramoneur (1952), a forerunner to Le Roi et l’Oiseau (The King and the Mockingbird, 1980). If I had not seen this film, I would have never imagined entering the world of animation.

Refined colours and exquisite visual perspective creating a fantastical dimension, a series of unexpected ideas, spectacular characterisation, the intense verticality of the world, unique humour – this film was way beyond established ideas at the time and with its surprising and novel ideas showed me the possibilities of animation films.

I was obsessed not only because its expressions were superb but also because I realised that these unexpected ideas and images were not just fantasies or jokes but instead were concealing the difficult and harsh reality of modern history.

The King and the Mockingbird (1980)

The King and the Mockingbird (1980)

This was not just an old revolutionary fantasy that illustrates liberation from dictatorship and oppression. It is the seemingly contradictory and nonsensical details that hide the tragic truth of the 20th century’s ‘history’ and ‘people’. The creator tells the next generation to be aware of this and be careful of the ‘trap’ of this world. Otherwise, why did he need to bring back La Bergère et le Ramoneur, which was made just after the Second World War, as Le Roi et l’Oiseau in the 1970s?

Even the birds that are supposed to be the symbol of freedom had no choice but to use sophistry to convince lions to protest in crisis. Humans cheered the birds when the lions rose and marched through the lower class parts of the city. We readily expect a morally touching story but are awakened and reminded of the harsh reality of politics. At the same time the old lady who was watching from her window shook her head and said, “C’est curieux, je ne les voyais pas du tout comme ça, moi, les oiseaux…” (“I never thought birds could be like this”). She could see through the reality. This film illustrates everything lightly and with humour.

What surprises us is that, apart from the last scene with a powerful message, there was no change in the basic idea in Le Roi et l’Oiseau which was released 30 years later. Most of the great shots in La Bergère et le Ramoneur remain exactly the same in Le Roi et l’Oiseau. How sad is it that the warning which began production before 1950 still makes sense?

The cross-eyed king reminds me of isolated, spoiled and selfish people in the modern world. In the city destroyed and ruined by the robots, I see the burnt field that I escaped through after an American air raid during the war and the tragedy of 9/11 and ask what it means.

The “verticality of the governance structure” that the creator’s poetic instinct highlighted is getting more intense in our world today and we are all placed somewhere within it. If we are unaware of this reality, who knows when we get struck by the reckless robots? When our urban environments collapse, we will definitely be crushed.

To me Le Roi et l’Oiseau is a prescient and extremely relevant work today, worth referring back to.

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