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Friday
Oct102014

Tim's Toons: the Best of Isao Takahata

Tim here. The Tale of Princess Kaguya , which could well compete for the animated Oscar this year, opens next week. But at that point I will be deep down in the pits of film festival madness (the Chicago International Film Festival starts today). So I want to talk about this now, lest I forget.

And that is the last thing I’d ever want to do, since Kaguya’s director, Isao Takahata, is (was?), along with Hayao Miyazaki, one of the twin gods of Studio Ghibli, though a director whose work was never as widely-known in the English-speaking world as his colleague’s. They're smaller in scale and less fantastic; one of his absolute best Ghibli-era works has never been released in the States, because the rights lie with Disney and one scene involves a discussion of menstruation, and we can’t have filthiness like that in our animation here, now can we!

He is, regardless of the difficulty in seeing his films, an unequivocal genius who deserves more attention for the wide range of styles he's explored in his films, and the graceful humanity of the stories he's told within those styles. Thus I have put together this little primer to celebrate the 78-year-old's newest film, and the career that led up to it.

[His three best films after the jump]

 

Grave of the Fireflies (1988)
The big one; the film that, more than any other, taught the West that Japanese animation (and animation generally) could address itself to any subject. In a strict, realistic style, with hard-edged colors and cluttered background, Takahata studied, in detail, the experience of two children in the aftermath of the firebombing of their home during World War II. It's one of the most anguished, unpleasant films ever made on any subject other than the Holocaust, and there's nothing I can do to describe what it's like to watch it that might make it sound otherwise ("When it was over, my legs almost gave out and I cried so hard I thought I'd vomit!" isn't much of a pullquote). But for proof that animation - that cinema, generally - can depict human beings with almost unbearable sympathy and emotional honesty, can speak lacerating truths without holding anything back, look no further. 

Only Yesterday (1991)
That scandalous menstruation film. Which means that if you're living in North America as you read this, you're not in a position to see this film without a good deal of effort, and for that I'm sorry. But not nearly as sorry as I am that such a sophisticated look at memory and maturity has spent more than two decades in the doghouse because of corporate squeamishness. Depicting a very simple tale of a woman returning to her childhood community, and finding herself overcome with memories of her youth, Only Yesterday demonstrates vividly that even the most "normal" scenario can be splendidly translated into animation: while Taeko's present is depicted in rich, full colors and heavily realistic drawings, her childhood is a matter of soft, cartoon lines, muted colors, and backgrounds that fade off into white. The bleeding of one style into the other beautifully expresses the film's insightful, unsentimental character study in thoroughly visual terms.

 

My Neighbors the Yamadas (1999)
A comic strip adaptation that takes its source material very, very seriously: the characters are all drawn with playful, round strokes, moving line drawings that communicate their broad personalities in short, easy-to-read caricatures. Meanwhile, the spare and frequently unfinished backgrounds never try to imply the existence of a world beyond the edges of the frame, creating a whole film worth of images that express one emotion, one gag, one narrative beat, and move one to the next - just like comic strip panels. And with all of this self-imposed limitation and sitcom-style comedy, Takahata still manages to paint a lovely and memorable study of a family where annoyance and love mix and mingle comfortably.

Honorable Mentions

Pom-Poko (1994) - a lovely environmentalist fable with stellar character animation in new fewer than three different styles of kids' cartoon, prestige animation, and nature-sketch realism. But I just brought it up a little while ago, and I wanted to spread the love.

Panda! Go Panda! (1972) - Another title that's virtually impossible to find in the States, legally, and it's not nearly as worthy of the effort as Only Yesterday. On the other hand, it's title character is this adorable bastard:

So scratch that, it's totally worth hunting it down.


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Reader Comments (8)

Oy, Grave of the Fireflies... The feels! The crying! What a spectacular beast of an emotional experience that movie is. I had seen plenty of animation (mainly Disney at that point) when I first laid eyes on it; but it changed me. It changed what I thought animation could do.

Brilliant.

October 10, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJay

I saw Only Yesterday about a decade ago, I think on TCM when they were doing a Miyazaki (and apparently, Studio Ghibli) retrospective. A beautiful, deeply felt film that I simply can't forget.

And Pom Poko is a really bizarre flick, and a lot fun.

October 10, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDoctor Strange

Ive only seen two of his GRAVE OF THE FIREFLIES -- which is just as devastating as everyone warned -- and PRINCESS KAGUYA. I'm still sorting out my feelings for the latter but it wasn't totally for me.

October 10, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Just looking at that picture of Setsuko and Seita makes me incredibly sad. The tin of candy, one of the central motifs of the movie, is readily available where I am, but I have horrible associations with it because of that movie and have never bought it because of that.

I have not seen Yamadas but did see Only Yesterday ages go and appropriately enough, my memory of it is rather wispy and tinged with nostalgia as I saw it during my first flush of love for animation. I remember it being very lovely and subdued, quite a switch from the fighting robots and screaming energy throwing martial artists who stare at each other a lot while pontificating that made up my Japanese animation viewing at the time.

October 10, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterF

Grave of the Fireflies recks me, I can't handle it. One of the most devastating films I've ever witnessed.

God bless the Seattle International Film Festival because they had a Studio Ghibli retrospective 2 years ago and they had a screening of Only Yesterday. I watched it and it's a masterpiece. Even the character design is out of this world. Like, cheek lines? Those don't exist in a lot of anime. Sad that it will require so much effort to see it again.

Pom Poko may be my favorite though, it's certainly the one I've seen the most. The ending where they cast one last illusion of their forest before it was destroyed makes me weep.

So stoked for The Tale of Princess Kaguya!

October 10, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew Rech

Love that you did this, Tim. I really enjoyed Kaguya, despite some unbalanced tonal oscillations that felt too heavy or obvious for the delicate style of the fllm. I think the scoring is particularly on point though - the music in the final scene is a touch of detached, surreal wonder and, in serving as a contrast to the heightened emotions of that scene, really made the touching finale work for me.

Still, it doesn't touch the brilliance of the end credits scene for Only Yesterday - one of my favourite cinematic moments in Ghibli's output, including everything that Miyazaki ever produced. For me it was a literal perfect moment that ties the film's themes of memory, regret, self-acceptance, and our complex internal lives together and provides one of those transcendentally satisfying 'leave-the-theatre' moments.

October 11, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAlice

I always always prefer Isao than Hayao, for his style that focus on naturalism and family bonds. I love the way he represents sexual element (menstrual part in Only Yesterday, "balls" in Pom Poko and his earlier film Chie the Brat, and the mother's breast in Princess Kaguya) not for any sexual interest, but for the natural development of any human nature. and they are such beautiful images.
Check out of all his earlier films like Chie the Brat or Gauche the Cellist, they are all brilliant.

And Isao is not even my favourite anime director, my favourite anime director would be Satoshi Kon.

October 12, 2014 | Unregistered Commentertombeet

I always thought Isao Takahata was underappreciated, so it's good to see him get some love.

Only Yesterday is probably my favorite Ghibli film outside of Spirited Away. A little nitpick though is that Yamagata where she travels to is not her childhood community but where her brother in law's family lives. She's always pined for the rural outdoors even though she spent her entire life in the big city, and the disparity between familiarity and her heart's desire is what is part of the decision she faced at the end of the film. It is this sort of depth that really makes it so great.

And another great early Takahata effort that's hard to find is Horus: Prince of the Sun. It's incredibly dated and includes some cheesy elements like talking animal companions, but the message is still pretty powerful, and the hallucinatory scenes in the forest are stunning.

October 12, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterajnrules

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