The Rear-View Mirror: Isao Takahata (1935)

Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!

There are no two ways about it: Hayao Miyazaki is a great filmmaker who has created many fantastic worlds that are both breathtakingly new and grounded in very human realities. His films are epic yet intimate, they deal with serious topics but Miyazaki never loses the whimsical twinkle in his eyes. It’s clear why Miyazaki would be seen by many as the face of Ghibli Studios.

Nonetheless, it is sad that Miyazaki’s fame tends to eclipse the other great creative mind at Ghibli: Isao Takahata (1935-2018).

Miyazaki’s films are by no means lacking in variation: there are considerable differences between the whimsy of My Neighbor Totoro, the goofy yet heartfelt pathos of Porco Rosso and the epic sweep of Princess Mononoke‘s mythology. But all of these are recognisably Miyazaki, there’s a similarity in tone, and you can usually spot a Miyazaki film based on its visual motifs. Takahata, on the other hand, was the more radical filmmaker. His grounded wartime drama Grave of the Fireflies looks and feels nothing like the wild blend of tones and styles of Pom Poko, where different realities and varying modes of representation go hand in hand: the film’s protagonists, a tribe of tanuki (Japanese raccoon dogs) who can change their appearance at will, are in turn depicted as realistic animals, anthropomorphised animals and more cartoon-like figures. My Neighbors the Yamadas uses a style reminiscent of newspaper comic strips, and The Tale of the Princess Kaguya blends a sketch-like visual style with watercolour backgrounds and uses expressionistic modes of animation that differ from one scene to the next. Where Miyazaki is formally consistent but uses his trademark style to tell different stories, Takahata chose styles and techniques based on the needs of his stories and characters.

It’s obvious that Miyazaki would be the easier sell, especially to an international audience. Takahata’s films are more bristly, more mischievous – and a film like Pom Poko with its tanuki and their proudly displayed “raccoon pouches”, as the English dub calls them (and yes, they’re exactly what you think they might be and they’re everywhere in this film), practically dares Western parents to show it to their children and field the resulting questions. Takahata’s films may not be as immediately crowdpleasing as Miyazaki’s, but he is well worth checking out. Isao Takahata was a visionary and deserves to be remembered just as much as his frequent partner and friend. Perhaps don’t start with Grave of the Fireflies, though, unless you are prepared to have your heart broken.

The Rear-View Mirror will return every Friday, looking further and further into the past. Fasten your seatbelts: it may just be a bumpy ride.

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