His Studio Ghibli co-founder and colleague Miyazaki Hayao calls him a “slugabed sloth – the descendant of some giant sloth that once crawled the plains of earth in the Pliocene era” – and elsewhere in his autobiographical scrapbook Starting Point observes that “with Paku-san, you can be guaranteed that at several points in the production he will begin yelling, “I can’t possibly make this film!” (He explains this longstanding affectionate nickname for Takahata Isao, too: “The story is that every day he would arrive just barely on time, drinking tap water and wolfing down bread. He sounded like this: paku, paku.”)
For his own part, Takahata responded with a gentlemanly thumbnail account of their odd-comradeship in the same tome:
“Many good friends have helped me by prying my three toes from the tree branches to which they often cling, but among them Miya-san has always been special…
“Miya-san has always aggressively tried to assume responsibility for various things, but at some unknown point I – the giant sloth – began to sneakily avoid responsibility. And since Miya-san is responsible for Studio Ghibli, whenever I do any work I have tended to create a great deal of trouble for him by, among other things, causing delays in production schedules.”
Since Miyazaki’s popular breakthroughs – in Japan with Nausicaa Valley of the Wind (19842) and particularly My Neighbour Totoro (1988); internationally with Princess Mononoke (1997) and the Oscar-winning Spirited Away (2001) – his name has been synonymous with Studio Ghibli’s, and indeed the universal beauty and spirit of his films have underwritten Ghibli’s remarkable perfectionism in the art of 2D animation. Takahata’s reputation has fallen into the slipstream; his WWII orphans tragedy Grave of the Fireflies (1988) stands aloft in the genre of animated war movies, and Ghibli watchers in the West will know his subsequent studio contributions Only Yesterday (1991), a Rohmer-esque distillation of a young woman’s summertime self-discoveries, the eco-guerilla play Pom Poko (1994) and the haiku-esque family comic-strip adaptation My Neighbours the Yamadas (1999), but his extensive pre-Ghibli filmography remains next to unknown in the West.
(His debut Hols, Prince of the Sun (aka The Little Norse Prince, 1968), the film on which he made his reputation both for interior subjectivity and for production foot-dragging, is in fact available on Ghibli-label discs, and you can find the Polyannaish featurette Panda, Go Panda! (1972) and its 1973 follow-up The Rainy-Day Circus on DVD; but his 70s TV directing work – contributing to the first series of Lupin the Third (1972-73) and Future Boy Conan (1978), and leading on Nippon TV’s ‘World Masterpiece Theatre’ serial literature adaptations Heidi, Girl of the Alps (1974), 3000 Leagues in Search of Mother (1976) and Anne of Green Gables (1979) – remains underground to Westerners, as do his returns to feature animation with Chie the Brat (1981) and Gauche the Cellist (1982), and indeed his Miyazaki-sponsored live-action documentary The Story of Yanagawa’s Canals (1987).)
After a period tending Japanese-edition transfers of animation classics such as Paul Grimault’s The King and the Mockingbird (1980), and contributing a one-minute segment to the 2003 portmanteau Winter Days, Takahata was persuaded back to feature directing again by young Ghibli producer Nishimura Yoshiaki, with backing from ex Nippon TV chief Ujiie Seiichiro, an unqualified admirer. Eight years later and Ghibli unveiled Takahata’s The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2013), a limpid, fleetly brush-drawn adaptation of Japan’s oldest-recorded folk tale that also extracted the best of Ghibli talents Oga Kazuo (art direction) and Tanabe Osamu (character design).
I wrote at length about the film and Takahata in the April 2015 issue of S&S, at the time of the film’s UK cinema release. At the time Takahata was swept up in the film’s Oscar campaign, but I was invited to send him five questions which he would answer by email. I cheated and strung together three questions at the outset, so however you count them there aren’t five, but here is what Takahata-san has kindly answered.
What first inspired you about animation? What do you love about it now? Where should it go next?
During World War II, in 1944 when I was eight years old, I saw The Spider and the Tulip by Kenzo Masaoka; it amazed and frightened me, and I was spellbound. I still think it is a brilliant work.
I like animation films that use a pictorial style with the power to stir people’s imagination and awaken their memories. I recognise that there are excellent works among 3D CG films, but I personally don’t care for that style of expression.
Pictorial art tested out all sorts of possibilities during the twentieth century, and as a result lost sight of its guidepost as to ‘where it should go next’. But that doesn’t mean that paintings have died out, does it? In the same vein, I can’t tell where animation ‘should’ be headed. I do believe that the future will see the creation of many interesting works using a variety of styles.
Your films at Studio Ghibli seem to have moved tangentially away from Miyazaki-san’s, even though there’s still a sense of dialectic between them. How do you imagine your career might have differed if you hadn’t met him (and vice versa)?
I met Miyazaki Hayao when he was a newcomer, and, struck by the potential I saw in his talent, I enlisted him to participate in my projects as a valued staff member. He was a wonderful partner for me. Then he became independent and moved away from our collaborative work to take the path of becoming a superb director.
Meeting him was the greatest good fortune for my career. No doubt I influenced him, but he influenced me as well. For this very reason, we realised early on the differences in our temperaments. He is a genius. While I have been moved by his works, hold them in high regard, love them and at times resisted them, I have created works that are entirely different in nature from his. I have been able to create my works thanks to the financial base of Studio Ghibli due to the amazing popularity of Miyazaki’s films. In that regard, as well, I am deeply grateful to him.
Miyazaki-san talks about his films as messages for children, asserting that “this life is worth living”. Would you add anything?
I feel exactly the same way, and have nothing to add. When I am asked to write a message for children, I often write “Live full of life in a lively way!”
Your producer wrote that you were sad to finish The Tale of the Princess Kaguya. Are you still sad?
I am not sure if I would say that I am ‘sad’. Of course, it was hard to part with my wonderful staff who pulled their strength together and worked hard to accomplish what they did, and I miss them. I have quite a talent to enjoy normal daily life, so I am able to live every day ‘full of life in a lively way’.
Studio Ghibli co-founder Takahata Isao has a reputation as an implacable perfectionist – and with its rare blend of raw line-drawings and watercolours, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, his first movie in 14 years, took eight years and a kindly patron to make. By Nick Bradshaw.