From Grave of the Fireflies to The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, the visionary director grounded fantasy with emotional force
The fact that I found it so difficult to watch Grave of the Fireflies (1988) a second time might seem a damning indictment, but the truth is quite the opposite. Some experiences are unrepeatable because they are so overwhelmingly powerful. The first feature length Studio Ghibli anime directed by Isao Takahata, who died last week at the age of 82, Grave of the Fireflies appears a harrowing exception to his otherwise charming, gentle oeuvre. The tale of a brother and sister in Japan, at the closing stages of the Second World War, is certainly unflinching. You come away not so much impressed by it as wounded. Yet all the traits that made Takahata a quietly colossal figure are already present: his tender humanism, his elegiac melancholic qualities, his eye for passing transcendence in daily life, his advocacy of loyalty and family, his exploration of adolescence, and the use of animation to do things that no other art form could do quite so successfully.
Based on a 1967 story by Akiyuki Nosaka, Grave of the Fireflies bears its historical weight gracefully, with the scenes of brutality resonating all the more because of the simplicity and subtlety of the rest of the film. Nosaka wrote the original tale as a penance for his younger sister, who died in the aftermath of the Allied incendiary bombing of Kobe in 1945. Her death is recreated as it happened, but the role of her brother is romanticized because Nosaka’s real-life failings were scarcely bearable for the writer to depict. Takahata added his own experiences to the animated adaptation; tapping into childhood memories of accompanying his sister during the Allied decimation of Okayama. The result is a film of startling clarity, empathy and beauty, yet one that drifts, in spite of the audience’s wishes, inexorably towards tragedy.
Watching Grave of the Fireflies is like viewing the slow creep of death while willing the end to be different. But to do so would be a betrayal of those for whom the Second World War really was the apocalypse. Life is transitory and was all the more fleeting in those days. Yet despite the film’s devastating impact, the moments that stay with you are those which are intimate, mesmeric and reflective: a tattered umbrella, the rattle of Sakuma drops sweets in a tin, the echoes of a child’s voice and footsteps, and the bioluminescent dance of fireflies. Even during the bombing, there are brief, masterful moments of stillness – focusing on the shadow of a tree upon a wall where a ladder and mop lean, and ripples on a water tank where a single leaf floats – that are zen-like in their clarity, before the skies darken and the horror begins to unfold and engulf.
Grave of the Fireflies was originally screened alongside Hayao Miyazaki’s My Neighbour Totoro (1988) as a double billing. The directors had become friends working for the union at Toei Animation, while making cartoons for Japanese television. While they often portrayed themselves as a caring but exasperated odd couple, the two had an immense bearing on each other’s work. They collaborated on The Great Adventure of Horus, Prince of the Sun (1968) with the likes of Yasuo Ōtsuka – an innovative feature-length animation that seems to have been too far ahead of its time and bombed accordingly. They saw some success however with the playful short Panda! Go Panda! (1972), modified from extensive work they’d undertaken for a cancelled adaptation of Pippi Longstocking, and a number of ‘World Masterpiece Theater’ series (Japanese television anime adaptations) including Heidi, Girl of the Alps (1974), 3000 Leagues in Search of Mother (1976), and Anne of Green Gables (1979). On the back of the revolutionary impact of Miyazaki’s Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984), the influence of which is still being profoundly felt today in anime and video games, they formed Studio Ghibli, with the producer Toshio Suzuki in 1985. In addition to their collaborations under his direction, Takahata would produce Miyazaki’s Laputa: Castle in the Sky (1986) and direct the music on Kiki's Delivery Service (1989).
Inevitably, given their singular visions, the two would head in different directions. Takahata’s interest was in society and the individual’s place within it, as demonstrated in the metropolitan cartoon Downtown Story (1981) and his documentary, originally intended to be anime, The Story of Yanagawa's Canals (1987). Stylistically, he began to turn first towards music (Gauche the Cellist, 1982) and then, from a distance given he was not an artist, hand-drawn art; writing a book on illustrated medieval Japanese scrolls. Adapted from a manga comic by Hisaichi Ishii, My Neighbours the Yamadas (1999) has an inventive sketched feel (notably achieved using digital technology) that gives life to the daily tales of a middle-class family. While initially a disappointment after the epic work of the past, there is a warm reflexive quality that gradually charms; these are like stories you’d read in a newspaper comic strip, while the same domestic suburban mini-dramas might unfold around you. The style was a precursor to what may stand as Takahata’s masterpiece, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2013). Originating in the 10th century, the magical folkloric story, where a child is discovered inside a bamboo shoot, is depicted as if painted in watercolour. Released in tandem with Miyazaki’s hugely-successful The Wind Rises (2013), Takahata’s film was critically acclaimed but, perhaps because of its sublime delicate poetry, barely recouped half of its cost.
It is easy to overlook Takahata’s contributions to Studio Ghibli’s success, given the spectacular nature of Miyazaki’s films, but both are vital. There is a real sense in their work of the maturation of an art form, ironically through the creation of worlds for children (and adults by extension). Just as photography came of age when it ceased emulating painting, and cinema found its voice as it evolved away from magicians’s stagecraft, anime came into its own to a significant degree through their efforts. Both Takahata and Miyazaki shared a wide knowledge of world literature, inspired by watching Paul Grimault’s The King and the Mockingbird (1952), which eventually led to Takahata’s first feature The Little Norse Prince in 1968. Both had a deep appreciation of Japanese mythology and their ancestors in the visual arts. At times you see echoes of 19th and early 20th-century master woodblock artists – the dynamism of Utagawa Kuniyoshi or the twilight serenity of Hasui Kawase for example. In his wildly absurdist Pom Poko (1994), Takahata lets loose all manner of mythological creatures, as if they’ve escaped from a Kuniyoshi print. Yet the genius of both is the ability to ground the fantastical with complex, nuanced and believable characters and real emotional force, as well as the ability to stun the viewer not just on a huge canvas but with tiny reflections: a moving train carriage, a cat on a rooftop, a person trying to find their place in the world (Takahata’s underrated Only Yesterday, 1991, is a tour de force in this regard).
Life is hard, puzzling and finite, Takahata’s work suggests, but there can be idyllic moments if we are careful to recognize and nurture them. It is eminently worth living. There is undoubted sentimentality involved. But sentimentality is, after all, a valid part of existence. Recently, after many years, I returned to watch Grave of the Fireflies a second time. The movements, mannerisms, and proportions of the little girl Setsuko are just like my little boy’s. It was both hypnotic and heartbreaking. Perhaps what really haunted wasn’t loss but rather what is unsaid in terms of her older brother Seita – his failures and how the bitter real-life mistakes were rewritten, as if the past ever could be. I couldn’t bear to watch and, because of the power of Takahata’s vision and storytelling, I couldn’t turn my eyes away.
Main image: Isao Takahata, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, 2013, film still. Courtesy: Studio Ghibli, Studio Canal