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only yesterday

RIP Isao Takahata, a visionary who gave complex beauty to the everyday

The Studio Ghibli co-founder behind stunning, intricate anime like Only Yesterday and Grave of the Fireflies has passed away aged 82

A deep dive into the magical world of Studio Ghibli isn’t complete without the emotional, complex, humanity-driven gems created by Isao Takahata. The legendary filmmaker has reportedly passed away at the age of 82 in Tokyo.

As elusive as he was talented and innovative, Takahata produced The Tale of Princess Kaguya (2014), Grave of the Fireflies (1988), Only Yesterday (1991), among others. He co-founded the genre-defining Japanese animating house Studio Ghibli alongside Hayao Miyazaki

In 1959, Takahata kickstarted his career working at the Toei animation studio, where he met future collaborator and friendly rival Miyazaki. His most famous film is Grave of the Fireflies, a harrowing, stunning story of orphans in the Second World War. Takahata also produced Miyazaki’s Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, a tale of a princess, nature and environmental disaster. A staunch pacifist with an intense concern for environmental issues, his political and social responsibilities rippled across the works of Studio Ghibli.

Takahata’s films featured a slew of complex female characters. Only Yesterday presents a real, nuanced emotional struggle in its lead Taeko, who finds herself under the thumb of her controlling father and later, at a loss for what to do with her life. She has emotional peaks and troughs from childhood to a complicated adulthood where, finally, she emerges from her shell. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, adapted from an ancient fairytale about a foundling child, explores the lead’s personal conflict against the oppressive society she lives in. Takahata changes the lead’s gender from the original tale’s male to female, and unpacks how patriarchy keeps her from her dreams in a wonderful coming-of-age story. Issues of class and gender are explored with exquisite, light touch.

The Washington Post reports Takahata had planned to do a film about exploited young girls forced to work as nannies in Japan.

The style of Takahata’s output is enduring and far-reaching, crafting light and heart-warming comic-strip style works like My Neighbours the Yamadas, to the delicate paint-like strokes of Kaguya. Though not an artist himself, unlike his other Ghibli colleagues, it arguably fuelled his need to experiment and play with visual and narrative style. Pom Poko – a film about raccoon dogs fighting to save their forest from land developers – flits from the surreal to the everyday, the dark and defiant to the light and joyful. In Only Yesterday, Taeko’s daydreams and fantasies are spliced with reality – after interacting with her crush, she floats the whole way home. A first for the Ghibli franchise in style was Grave of the Fireflies character Seita staring down the camera in its opening moments.

Where Miyazaki films – My Neighbour Totoro, Ponyo, Porco Rosso – are fantastical and dreamy, Takahata finds intimate moments in normality, whether it’s small but pretty moments of pineapple-eating in Only Yesterday or the comedic moody family dog’s facial expressions in My Neighbours the Yamadas. Family life, childhood, loneliness, our environment, are treated intricately with his stunning storytelling talent. For Only Yesterday, he recorded the voice actors first and encouraged dialogue imperfections that he could work in.

Anime, he once said, should “recall the reality within the drawings, rather than thinking the drawings themselves are real... (it) captures things we do and reflects more solid reality that how they actually are.”

In the documentary The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness, his passion for detail is exhibited as he ponders the animated cutting of fruit – Takahata motions cutting a bagel as he blocks it out in real-time. “I’ve blown it before. This time I don’t want to,” he says. He refers to a watermelon cutting scene in Grave of the Fireflies, “it looks like tofu”. Though he moved slowly and deliberately as he made his films – Miyazaki reportedly called him a sloth and it took him 18 months to complete the Kaguya script – it was all pretty much worth it for his incredible output, and everyone was willing to wait.

A spokesperson for Studio Ghibli confirmed his death “is true” but had no other information. NHK reported that a source close to his family says he died following ongoing health issues. 

“This earth is a good place, not because there is eternity,” Takahata once said. “All must come to an end in death. But in a cycle, repeated over and over, there will always be those who come after us.”