Takahata Isao: four answers

The Studio Ghibli co-founder on animation inspirations, working with Miyazaki and reasons for joy.

Nick Bradshaw
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Takahata Isao outside Studio Ghibli

Takahata Isao outside Studio Ghibli

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.”

Hols, Prince of the Sun aka The Little Norse Prince (Taiyo No Ôji, Horusu no Daiboken, 1968)

Hols, Prince of the Sun aka The Little Norse Prince (Taiyo No Ôji, Horusu no Daiboken, 1968)

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).)

Heidi, Girl of the Alps (1974)

Heidi, Girl of the Alps (1974)

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.

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (Kaguya-hime no monogatari, 2013)

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (Kaguya-hime no monogatari, 2013)

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.

アニメーションに関して、最初に監督を感激させたものはなんですか?今ではアニメーションの何が好きですか?また、それ(アニメーション)はこれからどうなって行くべきでしょうか?

第二次大戦中(1944)、8才で、政岡憲三作『くもとちゅうりっぷ』を観て驚き恐がり、そして魅了されました。今見ても優れた作品だと思います。

人々の想像力をかき立て、記憶を呼び覚ます力を発揮する絵画手段を使ったアニメーション映画が好きです。3DCGに優れた作品があることをみとめないわけではありませんが、表現手段としては個人的には好きではありません。
絵画芸術は20世紀にあらゆることを試みたあげく、「どうなるべきか」という指標は見失いました。だからといって、絵画が死んだわけではないでしょう。同様に、アニメーションもどうなる「べき」かはわかりませんが、さまざまなヴァラエティに富んだ面白いものが、これからも生まれると信じています。

Takahata, producer Suzuki Toshio and Miyazaki Hayao in the 2013 Studio Ghibli documentary Kingdom of Dreams and Madness (2013)

Takahata, producer Suzuki Toshio and Miyazaki Hayao in the 2013 Studio Ghibli documentary Kingdom of Dreams and Madness (2013)

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.

貴方のスタジオジブリでの作品は、宮崎駿監督の作品と接して、それらはまた弁証法的な感じもしますが、(徐々に)離れていっているように思えます。

もし彼に出会っていなかったら、貴方のキャリア〔経歴〕はどのようになっていたと思われますか?(また、その逆〔宮崎監督があなたに会っていなかったら。〕はどうお考えですか)

私は新人の宮崎駿と出会ってその潜在的な才能に気づき、感嘆し、最も重要なスタッフとして、わたしの作品に参加してもらいました。彼は私の素晴らしいパートナーでした。そして独立し、共同作業ではなく、素晴らしい作家としての道を歩みはじめました。彼に出会ったことは、私のキャリアにとって最大の幸運でした。私も彼に影響を与えたでしょうが、私ももちろん彼から影響を受けました。だからこそ、かえって二人はお互いの資質の違いに早くから気づいたのだと思います。彼は天才です。私は彼の作品に感嘆し、敬意を払い、愛し、ときに反撥しながら、私は彼とは全然違う作品を作ってきたのです。宮崎駿作品の見事な大衆性(ポピュラリティ)が、スタジオジブリの財政の基礎を生み出し、そのおかげで私は作品を作ることが出来たのだと思っています。私は彼にその点でも深く感謝しています。

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (Kaguya-hime no monogatari, 2013)

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (Kaguya-hime no monogatari, 2013)

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!”

宮崎駿監督は彼の作品について、子供たちへのメッセージとして、「この、人生というものは、生きることに値するものです」と話していますが、(それに関して)何か付け加えるものはありますか?

私も同感であり、付け加えることはありません。私は子どもたちのために何か言葉を書けと言われたとき、「生き生きと生きよう!」と書くことが多いです。

Panda, Go Panda! (1972)

Panda, Go Panda! (1972)

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’.

西村プロデューサーが、監督は「かぐや姫の物語」(の制作)が終わって悲しんでいると仰ってました。(それは)今でも悲しいですか?

「悲しい」という意味がわかりません。私はたしかに、一緒に力を合わせて頑張り、やり遂げた素晴らしいスタッフたちと別れ難くて、彼らをmissしていました。私は平凡な日常生活を楽しむことにかけては、かなりの才能がありますので、今も毎日を「生き生きと」生きているつもりです。

 

In the April 2015 issue of Sight & Sound

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.

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