Tribute: Japanese animator Isao Takahata found beauty in the mundane

The Studio Ghibli co-founder’s legacy is as important as his celebrated partner Hayao Miyazaki.

The recent death of Studio Ghibli’s co-founder, producer and director Isao Takahata has prompted a proper recognition of his work, liberating it from the shadow of his more celebrated partner, the Pixar-championed Hayao Miyazaki who unlike Takahata, also designed and animated.

But for animation scholars, critics and fans, Takahata’s films always had the same resonance, and foregrounded their own style and preoccupations. Takahata, unsung in many respects, defines the Ghibli style as much as Miyazaki; his grasp of the beauty of the mundane and his impressionistic apprehension of memory and feeling, is as memorable as Miyazaki’s epiphanies in flight.

Isao Takahata was a co-founder of Studio Ghibli, Japan’s famous animation studio. Photo credit: EPA, CC BY-SA.
Isao Takahata was a co-founder of Studio Ghibli, Japan’s famous animation studio. Photo credit: EPA, CC BY-SA.

Both began their careers at the Toei Studio, Takahata directing the commercially unsuccessful The Great Adventure of Horus, Prince of the Sun (1968), on which Miyazaki served as an animator. The pair then achieved success on the Takahata-directed and Miyazaki-designed Panda Kopanda films (1972/1973), as well as TV work, and the literary adaptations produced by Nippon Animation, including Heidi, A Girl of the Alps (1974).

Takahata directed features Chie the Brat (1981) and Gõshu the Cellist (1982), before joining Miyazaki to produce Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984), along with long-time collaborators, composer Joe Hisaishi and producer Suzuki Toshio, with whom they went on to form Studio Ghibli.

Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984).

The studio’s manifesto was to focus on the artist auteur and produce high quality animation, a significant risk in the highly commercial Japanese market of the time. Within three years, Studio Ghibli had produced what have become two acknowledged masterpieces, Miyazaki’s My Neighbour Totoro (1988) and Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies (1988), the latter the product of Takahata’s personal convictions as an anti-war activist.

An adaptation of a short story by Akiyuki Nosaka, the film is informed by Takahata’s own wartime memories in Okayama as he tells the tale of an orphaned brother and sister, Seita and Setsuko, as they try to survive after the allied fire-bombing of Kõbe, Japan, in World War II.

Grave of the Fireflies (1988).

Again, for those invested in animation as a form, it comes as no surprise that an animated film can deliver narratives of significant import and emotional affect. Though like Miyazaki, Takahata’s films feature children and childhood, and depict the childlike in such sensitive ways, they are never childish nor made only for a children’s audience. Rather they speak to the commonality of experience for adults and children, and use the emphases on everyday gesture that animation so powerfully amplifies – the cutting of fruit, a baby pursuing frogs, picking a flower, placing a comforting hand on a shoulder – to communicate universal themes and connections.

Japanese legend

I had the good fortune to meet Takahata at Ghibli, and, though he did not draw himself, he noted that drawing always suggests the hand that creates the image, and as such, the human feeling that resides within it, and might be shared. He argued, too, that drawing always reminded him of the resourcefulness, energy and vulnerability of the child, which he tried to show in his films.

Inspired initially by his studies of French literature in the 1950s, and particularly the poetry of Jacques Prévert, Takahata was enthused by an animated adaptation of Prevert’s Le Roi et l’Oiseau (1952) – The King and the Mockingbird – made by director Paul Grimault. Grimault’s lyrical style and colour palette were influential on Takahata’s more realistic cartoon aesthetic, but as his oeuvre developed, a sometimes more comic-strip approach, such as in My Neighbours the Yamadas (1999), or a calligraphic style, like The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2013), emerged in telling a particular story.

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2013).

This calibration of form and subject enabled Takahata to adopt different tones and outlooks on what were essentially potentially tragic themes – suffering and death in Fireflies; pastoral utopia and urban drudgery in Only Yesterday (1991); environmental transformation in Pom Poko (1994); and dysfunctional families in Yamadas.

Crucially, Takahata drew upon the distinctive language of expression available in animation, often using metamorphoses and visual metaphors to move seamlessly between comic vignettes and serious observations, often prompting heart-wrenching, bittersweet endings.

Only Yesterday (1991).

Takahata observed that he didn’t believe audiences watched live action films carefully, but that animation forced them to do so, because it produced reality more solidly than it actually is. This is surely never more affecting than in Setsuko’s demise in Fireflies and the poignancy of her question, “Why do fireflies have to die so soon?”

Takahata once perceived himself to be a failure because he had not made a film like Frederic Back’s The Man Who Planted Trees (1986), with its vivid commitment to human endeavour and the power of nature. But his own legacy refutes this self doubt, offering stories of human aspiration, good humour, love and the belief in life, in the face of the world’s challenges.

As we wipe away our tears when watching Fireflies, we might hear the voice of Takahata himself, in the guise of a smiling man, who speaks to the children and says, “Beautiful day, in spite of it all …”

Paul Wells, Director of the Animation Academy, Loughborough University.

This article first appeared on The Conversation.

Support our journalism by subscribing to Scroll+ here. We welcome your comments at
Sponsored Content BY 

The qualities of a high-performance luxury sedan

A lesson in harnessing tremendous power to deliver high performance.

Gone are the days when the rich and successful would network during a round of golf, at least in the Silicon Valley. As reported by New York Times, ‘auto-racing has become a favourite hobby for the tech elites’. However, getting together on a race track would require a machine that provides control while testing extreme limits. Enter the Mercedes-AMG range of cars.

Mercedes-AMG’s rise from a racing outfit to a manufacturer of peak performance cars is dotted with innovations that have pushed the boundaries of engineering. While the AMG series promises a smooth driving experience, its core is made up of a passion for motorsports and a spirit that can be summarized in two words – power and performance. These integral traits draw like-minded people who share and express Mercedes-AMG’s style of performance.

The cars we drive say a lot about us, it’s been said. There are several qualities of an AMG performance luxury sedan that overlap with the qualities of its distinguished owner. For instance, creating an impression comes naturally to both, so does the ambition to always deliver an exceptional performance. However, the strongest feature is that both the owner and the AMG marque continually challenge themselves in pursuit of new goals, stretching the limits of performance.

This winning quality comes alive, especially, in the latest Mercedes-AMG marque – the Mercedes-AMG E 63 S 4MATIC+. With the most powerful engine to have ever been installed in an E-class, this undisputed performance sedan promises immense power at the driver’s command. With 612 HP under its hood, the car achieves 0-100 km/h in just a few seconds - 3.4 to be precise. Moreover, the car comes with the latest driver-assistance technology that promises intelligent control and provides an agile and responsive ride.

But, the new AMG is not just about work (or traction in car lingo). One of its core features is to provide its owners a challenge on the race track. Its drift mode, which converts the vehicle into a pure rear-wheel drive, offers pure exhilaration and adds a work-play dynamic to the car. In that sense, the new AMG is a collaborator of sorts - one that partners with its owner to create an impression through performance. And on the weekends, the car pushes him/her to express absolute power using its race mode with a thunderous roar of the engine - the pure sound of adrenalin. This balance between work and play has been achieved using cutting-edge features in the car that together create an almost intuitive driver-machine relationship.

If you’re looking for a car that shares your enthusiasm for driving, you’ll find a partner in the new AMG. However, buying an AMG is not just about owning a powerhouse on wheels, it’s also about adopting a driving philosophy in which power is just the starting point - the main skill lies in how you manoeuvre that power on the road. A performance sedan in its sportiest form, Mercedes-AMG’s latest model takes vehicle performance to an unmatched level. A decade ago, this amount of speed and power in a luxury 4-door model would be un-thinkable.


The new Mercedes-AMG comes with a host of individualisation options through designo, the artistic side of Mercedes’s innovation, so the car becomes an extension of the owner’s distinctive personality. An expressive design with a new radiator grille and a muscular front apron showcase its athleticism. A new-age driver environment, widescreen cockpit, the AMG performance steering wheel and sports seat delivers an intensive driving experience. With the Mercedes-AMG E 63 S 4MATIC+, AMG has created an undisputed performance sedan that can rip the race track as well as provide reliable luxury sedan-duty. To know more about the most powerful E-class of all time, see here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Mercedes-Benz and not by the Scroll editorial team.