Today we will be continuing our discussion of the works of the legendary Japanese animation company Studio Ghibli. In our first two episodes on this topic we explored the work of Miyazaki Hayao. Miyazaki is the most famous human name associated with the studio (undoubtedly that grinning, umbrella-toting, furry forest troll trumps his creator), but there is one other particularly significant person inextricably linked with Studio Ghibli, one whose name is less-heralded, but whose best works are at least the equal of those of Miyazaki, if not better (though this is not an argument I am going to get into: arguing which of many tremendously good things is the most tremendously good thing seems a waste of time of all involved).
I refer, of course, to writer, director and producer Takahata Isao. Born in Ise in 1935, he survived a US air raid at the age of nine (an experience that would inform his debut animated feature for Ghibli), and studied French literature at the University of Tokyo, before starting a career with Toei Animation as an assistant director. While at Toei, Takahata met a young animator called Miyazaki Hayao, and the two have been collaborating ever since, making their biggest impact when they co-founded Studio Ghibli in the 1980s after the success of the Miyazaki-directed, Takahata-produced Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind.
While not as prolific a director as Miyazaki under the Ghibli banner, his works are more varied in style (though Takahata is not an animator himself), and some are strikingly distinctive. He also produced Michaël Dudok de Wit’s The Red Turtle, Studio Ghibli’s first international co-production. Miyazaki-san may have the largest mindshare when it comes to their partnership, but animator Yasuo Ōtsuka, who worked with the duo for a long time, has said that Miyazaki gets his sense of social responsibility from Takahata and that, without him, Miyazaki would probably just be interested in comic book stuff.
Takahata’s first feature for Ghibli wasn’t, in fact, an animation at all, but the documentary The Story of Yanagawa’s Canals, a project which consumed the director and threatened to use up all of the money from the success of Nausicaä. We’re skipping this particular work, though, not least because it’s virtually impossible to get a hold of outside of Japan, and also because for this episode we’re going to stick with animation.
To which end, let us begin with light and breezy Grave of the Fireflies…
Isao Takahata’s first animated feature for Studio Ghibli was released in Japan as a double-bill with Miyazaki’s My Neighbour Totoro, which must have created some tonal whiplash, to say the least. It seems an odd choice to follow the magical, delightful and whimsical adventures of two children and a forest spirit with a film that begins with an adolescent sleeping rough in a subway station, with the accompanying narration “that was the night I died”. It must have been quite the emotional gut punch.
Upon release it was commercially, though certainly not critically, a failure, due almost certainly to that odd pairing. Such curious marketing and distribution did the film a great disservice, no doubt turning away many potential viewers, and that is a great and genuine pity, because it is wonderful (if such a word is appropriate to its story).
Based on a semi-autobiographical short story of the same name by Nosaka Akiyuki, Grave of the Fireflies tells the story of Seita and his young sister Setsuko and their lives in Kobe in the last months of World War II. A fleet of US bombers carpet the city in incendiary bombs, and while Seita and Setsuko are unharmed, their mother dies from burn injuries from the fires that destroy much of the city. The siblings are forced to live with an aunt, who grudgingly takes them in. As things get worse for Japan in the war and rations become ever more restricted, the aunt begins to resent the presence of Setsuko and Seita and considers them a burden, with the tension increasing until Seita and his sister leave, making an erstwhile home together in an abandoned bomb shelter.
The only light in this place at night is from the captured fireflies, but these are short-lived creatures, and on their first morning there a distraught Setsuko buries their bodies while asking why they, and their own mother, had to die.
Existence is difficult for the children, and the little money their mother left them runs out which, coupled with the increasing cost and scarcity of foodstuffs in Japan, sees Seita forced to steal to feed his sister. It is not enough, however, and Setsuko soon becomes ill from malnutrition, a condition from which she never recovers, and to which Seita himself succumbs a few weeks later, bringing us back to the beginning of the film.
I actually have tears in my eyes just thinking about this, as I do every time that I watch it, as I did when I was writing this. One glimpse of the Sakuma fruit drops tin, which plays such a prominent role in the film, and my eyes moisten. It is haunting, sad, beautiful, melancholy, yet still manages to contain moments of joy and delight, as well as elements of resilience and fortitude, even if the central characters don’t make it to the end of the film. For that reason, and many others, it always rewards repeat viewing.
Returning to it you can appreciate even more its use of silence and its poetic structure (like the great Ozu Yasujirô, Takahata uses “pillow shots” – a sort of visual punctuation based on the “pillow words” of Japanese poetry), and further reading and cultural knowledge can bring to light the influence of Hiroshige, and even Hergé, in the film’s landscapes. Much of this knowledge is, naturally, more common and obvious to a Japanese audience, and from a Western perspective we need to work harder to extract the same texture from this film’s fabric, but it is absolutely an effort worth making.
Though marketed at families (see its shared billing with Totoro), and with a family-friendly rating, this is a very adult film (though one I do believe that more thoughtful children could, and should, watch). It is a fine example of Takahata’s supreme skill as writer and director to make his characters and story realistic: not visually (these remain cartoons), but in terms of tone, emotion and behaviour.
Some assert that this belongs on the list of greatest war films ever made, and I largely agree, though it’s debatable whether it is an anti-war film, at least in the more obvious ways. Certainly the director has strenuously objected to such classification, and I tend to go more towards his assertion that this is an anti-social isolation film, and for me it is absolutely an anti-anything that causes children to suffer film, from war to an uncaring state to unloving relatives.
What it also is is absolutely magnificent, and a must-see, not just for fans of Studio Ghibli or animation in general, but for fans of cinema.
I wasn’t sure what to expect from him, but most of the Ghibli films I’ve seen had some fantastical bent to them, but by this point it seemed that Takahata had a more grounded sensibility. Which may be why Pom Poko threw me for a loop, but Only Yesterday is an outright drama and character piece. And nothing wrong with that, of course, but worth reiterating for those that think anime concerns itself only with the outlandish.
Set in the early eighties, Taeko Okajima, a 27 year old Tokyo based salarywoman, decides to holiday with her extended family out in the sticks, helping with the safflower harvest as an excuse to get out of the rat race for a while. While taking the slow train out there, she’s struck by a wave of nostalgia for similar feelings as a youngster and recollects vignettes from her life as a ten year old, which will recur through the piece.
Arriving at the station, she’s collected by her brother in law’s second cousin Toshio. He’s a dedicated and passionate young farmer, extolling the virtues of organic farming back when that was rather less commonplace. The two meet up at various points over the weeks, often discussing Taeko’s views and hopes for her life as a kid, and how they match up with the actuality of modern life.
This all leads to Taeko questioning whether she wants to return to her life at all, and realising that she may be falling for Toshio. But is this just a fanciful view of an idealised lifestyle influence by all this nostalgia, which wouldn’t hold up to a sustained trip, or is this a true realisation of the life she’s wanted all along?
Taeko takes us along that path with her, and while she reaches an answer, showing her working as she goes, there’s a question mark over whether she reached the right answer that is impossible to tell, as only time after the credits roll will tell. I, for one, hope that this fictional animated character chose well, because even if she’s not real, she (and Toshio for that matter) and fine young fictional people who deserve to have a fine and happy fictional life together.
Akira this is not, or Spirited Away for that matter, but that doesn’t make this comparatively mundane film any less captivating than the other anime lynchpins. Taeko, Toshio, and all of the family seem like better realised and more realistic characters than most dramas I’ve seen in recent times, and much easier to empathise with without there really being any moments of crisis and resolution to help that along.
I’m a little frustrated that I can’t find much more to say about it, at least without risking repeating ourselves too much. It obviously looks and sounds fantastic, although that’s true of all of the films we’ll be talking about. As we work through these films we’ll see that Takahata varies his style more than most artists between films, although there’s arguably less of a gulf between this and Grave of the Fireflies than we’ll go on to see. There’s perhaps a more “realistic” animation style to this than Grave, although in stills you’d struggle to see it, but it’s certainly the right choice for this film.
But the mechanical aspects are very much the least of this film’s bullet points. It’s a warm, human drama, where – and it’s sad that this must be something to applaud, rather than table stakes – nothing stupid happens. My disbelief barely required suspension at all, and it’s rare that this happens along with the film also being a compelling watch, and there’s not much higher praise I can give a film.
I can imagine approaching this with a preconceived notion of what anime is, or certainly what I’d seen in my teenage years, for example, and finding this altogether too prosaic to get in to, but through my old, weary, barely functioning eyes and equally decrepit, but open, mind, this is a treat indeed.
So, then, Pom Poko or, in its literal translation from Japanese, Heisei-era Raccoon Dog War Ponpoko, or in the literal translation from my mind “I like this film but, my! isn’t it obsessed with testicles Pom Poko”.
Raccoon dogs, or tanuki (most English subtitles use “raccoon”, though raccoon dogs are, in fact, an unrelated but similar looking species) are very common in Japanese myth and folklore; they are clever, playful, sociable and, alongside the similarly common kitsune (folkloric foxes), tanuki are reputed to have the ability to shape-shift and change their appearance, though, unlike kitsune, typically not for nefarious ends.
In Pom Poko, the tanuki of the Tama Hills outside of Tokyo find their homes threatened by humans as Tokyo’s population grows ever larger and needs more and more space for new residential developments. Initially fighting amongst themselves over the dwindling resources and land, the competing clans are admonished by the matriarch Oroku, who tells them that to survive they must band together, and instead direct their energies towards stopping the humans.
In recent times the tanuki of the Tama Hills have forgotten most of their ancestral shape-shifting ability, so they set about learning the techniques, while envoys are sent to distant tanuki tribes in order to solicit aid and training from transformation masters. Their skills are then directed towards the humans building the new housing developments in something between guerrilla warfare and terrorism (and there are deaths here, on both sides) in an effort to make the humans leave so that the tanuki can reclaim the land. As this is set in modern Japan, you know who wins.
Of all of Takahata’s films, this feels closest in tone and style to the works of Miyazaki. Like the reputed nature of the tanuki, Pom Poko (the title comes from the sound the creatures make when they drum on their stomachs), it is a fun-loving and mischievous film, and full of testicles (rather than some fetish or obsession of the director, this is a trait of the tanuki throughout their depiction in Japanese art and stories, and is actually often entertaining). The dubbed lines “raccoon pouches” instead of the faithful “balls” in the subtitles can get in the sea.
Like many of Studio Ghibli’s films, Pom Poko is at heart a condemnation of, and warning about, the cost of “progress”, most particularly when it comes at the cost of the environment and the natural world, and it also has a tacit warning about forgetting one’s history and ancestry, and therefore one’s own essence.
It’s been quite a trend for me throughout this year to complain about running times of the films that we’ve talked about, but while Takahata’s films tend to run quite long for animated features, it’s only Pom Poko that feels overlong (by perhaps 30 minutes or so), but it’s still a quirky, funny, entertaining, balls-out (sorry, couldn’t resist) adventure, with an undercurrent of sadness and loss and with an important message. I wouldn’t put it at the top of any list, but, like all of Studio Ghibli’s films, it’s worth watching at least once.
This 1999 effort follows the Yamada family: parents Takashi and Matsuko, their teenage son Noboru, five year old daughter Nonoko, and Granny Shige (Matsuko’s mother), and very much represents a return to the more grounded story where testicles play almost no role in the resolution of any crisis.
Instead it presents a series of vignettes about family life, often very short, on the relationships between the family members, the most dramatic of those being the opening salvo where the family accidentally leave Nonoko behind in a department store, and more commonly focused on events such as Takashi and Matsuko’s battle for TV remote control supremacy.
If the art style and the story structures puts you in mind of a newspaper comic strip, well, that’s not too far off the mark of the source material that this adapts – imagine an Andy Capp strip where the characters actually love each other. It’s the rawest of styles Takahata has used, to the point of being Bill Plympton-esque at points, with some sections sporting a very different style to the rest, particularly as Matsuko has a run-in with a motorcycle gang.
This was, before preparing for this podcast, the only Takahata film I’d seen, and I was left a little cold by it then. It’s not, I think, the easiest introduction to his work, particularly having not experienced the late-nineties Japanese family dynamic myself. However, my wife has, and that’s at least part of why it’s one of her favourites, and in truth there’s not so much difference in families across nations that we can’t all take a great deal of joy from it.
I certainly enjoyed this a lot more second time around, perhaps because my expectations were properly calibrated, and perhaps because having now seen some of his other work, it’s possible to appreciate the very different style this takes, which was both a risk and achievement.
Not a risk that paid off in financial terms, this not doing all that well at the box office, and even with my revised level of appreciation for it, it’s still the Takahata film that I like the least. It’s important to note, for all that, I still like it.
It’s a charming film, and my only actual problem with it stems from aforementioned lack of familiarity with generalised Japanese family unit this is looking to mine comedy from. This means there’s a few occasions where there’s obviously a set-up to a punchline that lacked any sort of punch, but I’m assured of their efficacy for those in the intended audience.
It’s probably the least essential of Takahata’s films to catch up with, but still well worth watching. And there’s not many a directors output we could say that about.
Takahata Isao’s last film for Studio Ghibli is The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, based on the 10th century story The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, widely considered to be the oldest existing piece of Japanese prose.
An elderly bamboo cutter, Miyatsuko, comes across a glowing bamboo stalk in the forest one day. Cutting open the stalk, he is surprised (and who wouldn’t be?) to find a tiny, Thumbelina-like human inside, a minuscule princess that the bamboo cutter interprets as a gift from heaven. He returns to his wife, and when she holds the tiny girl, she suddenly transforms into a baby. The childless couple vow to raise the child as their own, and the bamboo cutter’s wife’s body responds by beginning to produce milk so that she can feed the child.
Through the course of the spring and summer, the child (referred to by the other local children as Takenoko, “Little Bamboo”) grows at a miraculous pace: gaining kilos within moments of being in her mother’s arms; growing a year’s worth of height while falling down a hillside. As she grows and learns, she makes friends with the other children, in particular Sutemaru, the son of a family of lathe-turners. Meanwhile, her father, the bamboo cutter, discovers more mysterious glowing stalks in the forest, one filled with gold nuggets, the other with beautiful silks, and reasons that the heavens want them to provide Little Bamboo with a life befitting of such treasures; to make her a genuine princess.
He uses the gold to have a palace built in the capital, and when it is ready the family move there, forcing Takenoko to leave behind her friends and a life and location where she was content. But life in the palace is happy enough for her at first, as she delights in the grounds and the kimonos that have been crafted from the beautiful silk that Miyatsuko found in the forest. Things begin to worsen, though, when a governess called Lady Sagami is brought to the palace to instruct Takenoko on how to be a noble princess which, in addition to things like etiquette, caligraphy and koto-playing, seems to largely consist of all the things she can’t, or shouldn’t, do, like ever be happy.
The real downturn comes after her naming ceremony, when she is given, the name “Kaguya”, meaning “Shining Light”. She realises that she has little say over her own life, and is expected just to become a wife to a “noble” lord or prince. Five such suitors come to see her, though Kaguya dispenses with each by using her considerable wit and intelligence, though the inadvertent death of one causes much hurt to her.
Her crisis comes when the Emperor himself hears of her great beauty, and he considers that she must be a prize for him alone to have. His unwanted advances cause her heart to cry out for help, something which sets in motion an unstoppable chain of events, as well as allowing her to realise her true identity and origin.
Dayum! This is a pretty film. It’s mostly animated in a watercolour style (with some passages later, like a dream sequence after the naming ceremony celebration, animated in charcoal, and a pencil style that makes me think a little of Bill Plympton) that is a constant visual delight.
Miyazaki Hayao gave an interview on video (I believe for Japanese television) in 2014 which, in his crotchety, grumpy (but correct) old man way, he decried much modern anime, stating that the industry was full of “otaku”, and that they were screwing it up. (“Otaku” can be fairly well-translated into English as “fanboy”, specifically in this case that of anime).
“You see, whether you can draw like this or not, being able to think up this kind of design, it depends on whether or not you can say to yourself, ‘Oh, yeah, girls like this exist in real life.’”
“If you don’t spend time watching real people, you can’t do this, because you’ve never seen it.”
“Some people spend their lives interested only in themselves.”
“Almost all Japanese animation is produced with hardly any basis taken from observing real people, you know.”
“It’s produced by humans who can’t stand looking at other humans.”
My breadth of knowledge and experience of anime isn’t anywhere close to sufficient to know whether this is an accurate description of the state of the industry in general, but I’ve certainly seen evidence of it, so I’m inclined to agree. More pertinently to this discussion, you really notice when the animated depiction of humans is particularly well-observed, and The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is yet another example of Studio Ghibli being masters of the craft.
As I mentioned in my introduction, Takahata doesn’t himself draw, but he clearly selects, and then directs, skilled animators who are keen observers. This is perhaps even more important in Takahata’s more stylised work – My Neighbours the Yamadas and this – where the faces and animation are simpler, and the characters’ natures and behaviour must be displayed in subtler ways: reaction, body language etc. One particularly fine example here is Kaguya as a baby: her crawling, tumbling and standing is beautifully observed, and clearly animated by people who have taken the time to study the real behaviour, and then translate it to the screen in a natural way.
There are copious others, but I am always struck by the simple but authentic movements of the baby, as I am by, for example, how utterly accurate and credible Mei is as a young child in My Neighbour Totoro. Beyond simply a measure of skill, it’s remarkable how good a thing can be when it is clearly made by people who care. It’s really so full of wonderful detail – the bandage on the foot of one of the lathe-turners as she makes a bowl is a subtle touch illustrates the animators’ skill and attention perfectly – as well as others, too numerous to mention and better observed first-hand.
The whole film is just a beautiful place to be. It also sounds wonderful, too, with a great score (his first for a Takahata film) from longtime-Miyazaki collaborator Joe Hisaishi, though one of the few complaints I have with the film (possibly the only complaint) is that music is overused, as in some moments I wished for silence. Hisaishi’s score fits well with, for example, the flying scene towards the end, with Kaguya and Sutemaru soaring over the landscape, but in smaller moments, for example when the baby Takenoko is crawling around her parents’ hut chasing frogs, I would much have preferred no musical accompaniment, or at least something gentler and quieter, like a refrain of the children’s song that is a recurring motif throughout.
But really those are the most minor of niggles, and I just can’t recommend this film enough. Its rather downbeat ending and melancholy tone may put some off, but it’s not dour or miserable, and the art alone, let alone the story, is more than enough reason to watch it. It is a beautiful thing indeed.
Thanks to everyone who has got in touch with us on this, or said kind words about the show – it’s all very much appreciated.
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