The names of Hayao Miyazaki and Joe Hisaishi are synonymous with the iconic Japanese animation company Studio Ghibli; that of award-winning director Isao Takahata, however, is one less known and more often overlooked.
Miyazaki and Takahata are actually co-founders of the legendary animation studio, but the quality and regularity of Miyazaki’s output has led to Takahata being pushed almost entirely out of the frame. With the likes of My Neighbour Totoro, Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle among the works that Miyazaki both wrote and directed, it’s little wonder that he is the more critically-acclaimed and globally known of the directing duo. But Takahata’s efforts deserve far more recognition: having helmed Studio Ghibli for 30 years is a huge achievement in itself; but he was also instrumental in guiding the flourishing work of Miyazaki, and starting his eventual rise to critical acclaim.
Takahata’s works are the niche treasures hidden amongst the vast Ghibli filmography from the past three decades: Grave of the Fireflies, Pom Poko and the recently released The Tale of the Princess Kaguya are possibly his most well-known works as a director. You can always find Isao Takahata’s name amongst the credits of the studio’s historic films, and it’s his hidden work and touches in these films that have helped to elevate their prestige. For example, the beautiful soundtrack of Kiki’s Delivery Service was produced under Takahata’s musical direction, whilst he also played a key role in producing both Castle in the Sky and Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind.
Early in 2014, Hayao Miyazaki announced his gradual retirement from creating features with Studio Ghibli – however this has perhaps proved a blessing for his longtime rival. The loss of Miyazaki has allowed Studio Ghibli to forge a new public identity: where once the name of Miyazaki was globally known by fans and synonymous with the Japanese animated brand, perhaps the future will herald the touting of Takahata’s name as the figurehead and face of Studio Ghibli? This has already sung true in the promotion for Ghibli’s recent release The Tale Of the Princess Kaguya, with posters and trailers proclaiming it to be “Isao Takahata’s Tale of Princess Kaguya” and “From Director Isao Takahata”.
Miyazaki’s classic epics of adventure and joy have long been the public ‘brand’ of Studio Ghibli. Audiences only need to hear the company name and it evokes images of pastel landscapes and sweeping brush elegies of suburban fantasy and sprawling natural vistas. Takahata’s few directed films are a drastic departure in both tone and artistic style when compared to Miyazaki; they feel more academic and knowledgeable in substance, yet the emotional scope of his films have a depth and brevity that is far more poignant.
Perhaps Miyazaki’s retirement (and the temporary halt in Ghibli’s production) is also breathing-room for the company, to both reassess their animation output and the future direction of their work. With one co-founder left, we could see Studio Ghibli embracing a new artistic direction of emotional and substantially darker animated releases, with a deeper sense of self. “Darker releases?” you might cry, and all it takes to ponder this is to point at Takahata’s most critically well-received film Grave of the Fireflies, the animation where two children are starving to death alone during wartime Japan. It has a powerful emotional effect on the audience, and a much darker message for the audience with its anti-war tones.
Isao Takahata can best be summarised as the ghost of Studio Ghibli; fleetingly cropping up through their feature output over the last three decades, with every cinematic blow he directs more poignant and acclaimed than the last. The 2014 Studio Ghibli documentary, The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness, is characterised by his absence, and yet he is held in an air of utterly masterful reverence by the Studio Ghibli artists. It is this that epitomises the essence of Takahata.
He is an artist like no other, with a slow working pace, but time only helps to strengthen his brush. Takahata deserves more global acclaim from fans of his past work and intricate role within the heart of Studio Ghibli, and maybe this is his time to claim it. With Miyazaki retired and his new company figurehead role heralded with the release of The Tale of Princess Kaguya, could this be teasing the future of the world’s favourite Japanese animation studio? 2015 looks to finally be the dawn of recognition for Studio Ghibli’s co-founder Isao Takahata.