A Damn Fine Cup of Culture Podcast #44: Isao Takahata – radical naturalism

When Isao Takahata died in 2018, the world lost one of the uncontested masters of animation. Takahata, long-time creative partner of Hayao Miyazaki and co-founder of Studio Ghibli, created some of the most striking, memorable anime there is. Together with guest Patrick Martignoni, Eric and Matt discuss Takahata and his thematic and aesthetic concerns, especially his idiosyncratic, experimental take on naturalism and how animation can be used to get to the essence of characters. In our discussion, we focus mainly on Grave of the Fireflies (1988), Only Yesterday (1991), Pom Poko (1994) and what is arguably Takahata’s magnum opus, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2013) – but we don’t forget to look in on his TV career, as all three of us were raised on Heidi, Girl of the Alps. Join us as we remember the great, idiosyncratic and surprising storytelling of Isao Takahata!

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The Rear-View Mirror: Hayao Miyazaki (1941)

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!

I have the writer Neil Gaiman to thank for my first experience with director Hayao Miyazaki and his fantastic worlds: at the time, Gaiman wrote the script for Princess Mononoke‘s English dub, which was probably the first dub of a Miyazaki movie that didn’t cast actors primarily known for their voice work in the main parts. Instead, we got names such as Claire Danes, Billy Bob Thornton and Gillian Anderson – and we also got a wider release than anime features (as opposed to, say, the latest Disney princess movie) usually got in my neck of the woods.

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Shamisen Hero

“If you must blink, do it now. Pay careful attention to everything you see, no matter how unusual it may seem. If you look away, even for an instant, then our hero will surely perish.”

— Kubo and the Two Strings

Laika Entertainment may just be the most underrated animation studio currently working. Everyone knows Disney and Pixar, you can barely go to the cinema without seeing a DreamWorks trailer, and Studio Ghibli and Aardman Animations deservedly have a large fanbase. Laika’s gorgeous features, from Coraline to ParaNorman, are mentioned much more rarely, though – which is a shame, since their latest, Kubo and the Two Strings, deserves much more of an audience, as it is one of the most beautiful works of animation I’ve seen in a long time.

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Flight or fight

I guess it had to happen sooner or later: if Miyazaki’s word is to be trusted on this, The Wind Rises is the director’s final film. While it’s not his best work, Miyazaki’s fictionalised biography of the aeronautical engineer Jiro Horikoshi is a fitting swan song for an artist whose fascination with flight is evident throughout his films (with Princess Mononoke being a notable exception). The Wind Rises is much less overtly fanciful than most of the director’s works, and its depiction of pre-WW2 Japan is striking in its prosaicness, but the film frequently soars with Jiro’s imagination. Flight is the dream that both the movie’s protagonist and its director share.

However, while the depiction of flight is often exuberant in Miyazaki, in some cases there’s a dark undercurrent to it, and this is definitely true of The Wind Rises. In his dreams, Jiro talks to the Italian engineer Count Giovanni Caproni, who tells him that “airplanes are beautiful, cursed dreams”, and that curse is the weaponisation of flight. In several of Miyazaki’s films flight and warfare are in close proximity to each other, and even the innocence of Laputa‘s air pirates’ ship or Porco Rosso‘s scarlet biplane and its whimsical pilot already hint at the violence of aerial combat. Although The Wind Rises doesn’t come out and say so explicitly, Jiro’s work will lead directly to the Zeros bombing Pearl Harbour and those piloted by kamikaze pilots. Even when the film is at its most elated, it is streaked through with sadness that man’s dream of flight so often serves only to come up with new and better means of inflicting death and destruction.

Except for a couple of scenes, the film keeps this as subtext rather than making it overt; if it had presented a more blatant pacifist message, The Wind Rises could easily have become preachy. Instead, Miyazaki weaves the theme throughout the film without forcing it onto the audience. However, it’s not clear to me to what extent the director wanted his protagonist, who can easily be read as something of a surrogate figure for the director, to come across as naive at best, and blithely self-centred at worst. The film wants us to like Jiro, clearly, but his actions and decisions come at a price that he never quite acknowledges. He is aware that his airplanes will be used for battle, yet he makes himself ignore this. Miyazaki’s depiction also seems to absolve Jiro too readily: he creates dreams, yet it is faceless others that pervert these dreams into killing machines. There is another, equally troubling instance of the film appearing to absolve Jiro’s actions, after he falls in love with and marries a Nahoko, a young woman who has tuberculosis. She leaves the sanatorium where she is supposed to get better to be with and support her husband, knowing that this is likely to worsen her condition, and while Jiro’s sister (a fictional addition to Horikoshi’s real biography, like Nahoko) blames her brother for allowing Nahoko to endanger her health even more, Miyazaki’s depiction of the couple’s love for each other suggests that everything is as it should be: Nahoko’s needs come second to Jiro’s dreams, just like these dreams come before any moral qualms that the airplanes he designs will be used as weapons. In his final imaginary encouter with Count Caproni, Jiro sees Nahoko again, smiling and waving, having fully become the beautiful ideal rather than a real, flesh-and-blood partner, but even here she subsumes her own needs to Jiro’s obsession:she conveniently dissipates in the wind so Jiro can continue talking shop with his idol.

It’s intriguing: The Wind Rises presents its protagonist as a good guy, but you don’t need to scratch the surface much to see that for all his charm and passion Jiro serves his own dreams before anything else. The film doesn’t present this as its preferred reading of the character, to my mind, but it definitely gives its audience enough space to interpret Jiro as increasingly self-absorbed. This tension between the presentation of Jiro as a Miyazaki stand-in and the now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t subtext of his more questionable qualities is interesting but also somewhat troubling; it’s still not clear to me whether The Wind Rises seeks this tension or whether it is at cross-purposes with itself. Miyazaki’s films usually don’t shy away from ambivalent characters, but I’m not sure this is what is going on in what is likely to be his final work.

Regardless of this, though, The Wind Rises is a beautiful, poignant work, and while I’ve only seen the English dub so far, I’d say that it is one of the better Miyazaki dubs, with one surprise voice actor especially that almost made me clap my hands in delight at how perfect the choice was. While I have the exuberant flights of fancy of Porco Rosso, Spirited Away and My Neighbor Totoro to return to, if Miyazaki makes good on his announced retirement I will miss seeing his imagination soar on the screen.

Goodbye, Miyazaki-san

Birds, rats and iron giants

I like Pixar movies, by and large, but I’m not as over the moon with them as many others. For one thing, I got extremely annoyed with John Lasseter when I got the Studio Ghibli films on DVD and had to sit through his patronising “My dear friend, Miyazaki-san…” and “You are very lucky…” intros; but also, I felt around Monsters Inc. and especially Finding Nemo that they were getting way too sentimental for their own good.

However, I loved The Incredibles. Yes, it also had that “family is the best” vibe that Nemo had, but it was done a lot less sappily. It was sweet but stayed quirky at the same time – and it was a lot darker in parts than Nemo – which basically did the Bambi thing by killing off Nemo’s mother, but apart from that there was little to no edge to the film. The Incredibles, on the other hand? Remember the scene when Mr. Incredible finds out what’s been happening to all the supers? Or the one where he almost kills Mirage? Also, there’s something very real about Mrs. Incredible’s fears that her husband is cheating on her – which is a fear you won’t find in many movies produced by Disney, I’d wager.

I also liked Ratatouille a lot – and there’s a subtle, quiet scene late in the film that brought a lump to my throat. I remembered that lump from another film by the same director: The Iron Giant. More than most directors of animated movies, Brad Bird is a deft hand at mixing the sentimental and the funny, real pathos and sheer goofiness. While Ratatouille is a very different film from The Iron Giant and indeed The Incredibles (the latter two go much more for the iconic, namely ’50s cold war paranoia and superheroes), all three of these films show a subtlety that is rare in American animation, so that a short, simple scene can break your heart.

The Iron Giant

I also liked Lifted, the Pixar short that was shown before Ratatouille. I hadn’t been that mad about For the Birds (shown before Monsters Inc., I think) or the jackalope one (Boundin’), since both of these got on my nerves after roughly one minute (they weren’t quite as clever or loveable as they thought they were, as far as I’m concerned), Lifted had a simplicity of story and design that worked very well for me. So, courtesy of YouTube, here’s Lifted: