Isao Takahata passed away on April 5, 2018 at the age of 82. This is a tribute from a child who grew up watching his TV shows in the 70’s ~ 80’s.

Isao Takahata was born in 1935 in the Mie Prefecture, Japan. After studying French Literature at Tokyo University, he joined Toei Animation and started his career as a director/producer of animation films. Hayao Miyazaki joined Toei several years later as an animator, and was hand-picked by Takahata to work on the TV shows he produced. Ever since, the pair created many landmark animations for children including early works such as “Lupin the Third”, “Heidi, Girl of the Alps” and “3000 Leagues in Search of Mother,” which set high aesthetic standards for the Japanese animation that followed.

I grew up in Japan watching the kind of shows that were modeled on Takahata’s format. Decades later, I raised my child in the US. When it was time for my son to start watching TV, I was subconsciously looking for Takahata-style animations because they were the ones I wanted him to watch. But to my surprise, I found none. All I could find were shows like Power Rangers, Pokémon or Sponge Bob. Although Takahata was such an influential figure, it looked like his style was almost extinct in the mainstream “anime” of the 21st century.

During his early years, he produced many shows about the children who had to go through hardships, often adapting classic literature. They were the stories of life, and the stories of what growing up really meant. The episodes didn’t always conclude with “happy ever after”, or “your dreams will come true if you try hard” clichés. Takahata did not try to exaggerate or sugar coat events or emotions just to increase dramatic effects. Poverty haunted ordinary people. Some adults were mean or senseless even to kids and didn’t change. Nature and the world were often irrational and did not make sense which was exactly why they were enormously beautiful at other times. I remember crying, watching those TV shows, because some scenes were heartbreaking even for a small child who had never experienced any serious hardships. Intense emotions such as “sad” felt so REAL in Takahata’s world.

But that doesn’t mean that his creations were sober and disheartening. It was the opposite. I am sure that the Japanese children who grew up in the 70’s dreamed of traveling on a piece of cottony cloud, eating smoothly melting cheese, and sleeping on a bed made of hay bales as they earnestly watched “Heidi, Girl of the Alps” who lived on the other side of the planet. Every detail of Takahata’s production had the real touch, texture, smells and feelings, even when it was something the kids had never seen in their life. Just as the hardships described were real; he also described happiness – the small happiness of everyday life – as so real. Because that’s how life is.

The vastly popular opening of the “Heidi, Girl of the Alps.” 1974. Director: Isao Takahata. Scene design, Layout: Hayao Miyazaki.
Every child who grew up before the 90’s probably vividly remember all the details of this intro, and can sing the song.

The opening of the “3000 Leagues in Search of Mother.” 1976. Director: Isao Takahata. Scene design, Layout: Hayao Miyazaki.
The story of a 9 year-old boy who travels from Italy to Argentina to look for his mother. He encounters many troubles and hardships before he finally finds her.

The opening of the “Future Boy Conan.”  1978. Director: Hayao Miyazaki. (Takahata directed two episodes of the series)
This is the first film Miyazak directed. As Takahata supported Miyazaki to become an independent director; the two started to pursue their own style after this project.

“Reality” in animation films is tricky. Today people often expect to experience objects that look/feel more real than in real life, now that film makers can use advanced digital computer graphic technologies that deliver “realistic” images in microscopic detail.

But this was not the “reality” that Takahata was looking for. At the end of the day, animation is not alchemy. Even if you make something spectacularly real that would overwhelm actual reality in “real-ness,” that does not mean that you have created a reality. Takahata was not interested in alchemy-type realism. If a typical animation focused on delivering the reality that you couldn’t feel in your everyday life (you could call it “fantasy” if you’d like), Takahata pursued a reality that was actually “felt” by humans. He wanted to capture everyday life which was an accumulation of casual actions, conversations and interactions, subtle feelings, changing seasons, spontaneous encounters and unexpected good-byes. He used his magic to let beauty and happiness emerge from low-key everyday events that were experienced by real people.

Yoshiaki Nishimura, who produced “The Tale of Princess Kaguya” – the last movie Takahata directed – remembers that Takahata sometimes described his approach to realism as “f***ing real.” 

In his early years, Takahata pursued realism by creating stories full of real details based on thorough research – he called it the “anthropological approach.” After that, he started to aspire to a more metaphysical, even philosophical reality. Nishimura observes: “It’s obvious if you see what he did with ‘My Neighbors the Yamadas.’”

The trailer of the “My Neighbor the Yamadas.”  1999. Director: Isao Takahata.
Screenwriter Michael Arndt saw this film at the MOMAT in 1999 when he was almost ready to give up his career as a screenwriter. Deeply impressed by Takahata’s approach to describe people’s daily lives to create an extraordinary film, he wrote “Little Miss Sunshine,” which became a critically acclaimed movie. He is now know as a screenwriter for “Toy Story 3” and “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.”

Adapting a manga comic by Hisaichi Ishii, the film was made using almost sketch-like, rough lines to shape objects/people and watercolor style finishing touches – ambiguous, subdued and subtle. It was the complete opposite of how animation films were typically created. Not only that, but many elements that would have existed if the movie happened in real life were intentionally eliminated. There were so many voids/space – “yohaku” or “ma,” if you were to use terms from Japanese aesthetics. And this was what Takahata meant by “f***ing real.”

Nishimura remembers Takahata kept saying, “try to capture the reality that is behind the drawn lines.” He did not want to use drawn lines to “limit” the potential of expression by letting them compete with the physical reality of real objects. Instead, he tried to capture the elusive truth hiding in our everyday lives by limiting drawing to the ultimate essentials.

In order to achieve such a challenging mission, Takahata relied on the abilities of certain artists who could capture subtle moments and record moods, ambience and/or the feel by eliminating every detail that was superfluous. One person he needed for his production was Osamu Tanabe, the chief animator of “My Neighbors the Yamadas” who defined this artistic quality. (Simple and minimal sketch-like approach does not mean less work at all. Indeed, it took three times more drawings, requiring total 170,000 pictures to make this film.)

Takahata declined taking on a new project for a long time after “My Neighbors the Yamadas” (which was a commercial failure by the way) was released in 1999. The only possibility, Takataha insisted, would be to create something that would fully leverage Tanabe’s ability to capture the essence of the real feel of real people without relying on detail-oriented realism.

When he finally decided to direct a new film, “The Tale of the Princess Kaguya,” with Tanabe as the chief animator, it was already 2005 and it took him another eight years to finish. This would be his last work and was released in 2013. The production process was anything but efficient. Although the director and the chief animator both knew that they were both involved in making a commercial film, they were stubbornly loyal to their creative instincts and wanted to stay “real” about what they would produce. But “The Tale of the Princess Kagya” was based on an old story written more than 1,000 years earlier. How could they feel “real” about life a thousand years ago? Both Takahata and Tanabe grappled to answer that question. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya” was a film made by a director who struggled to write a plot/screenplay and an animator who struggled to draw a single story board, because they had no intention of creating something that didn’t feel real. The director would spend months writing just one page of synopsis while “scolding” his chief animator for not drawing enough or interpreting his intentions wrongly.

Of course it wasn’t that they were lazy or procrastinated (although Hayao Miyazaki describe Takahata as a “sloth” for his stubbornly slow pace). Literally, the word “compromise” wasn’t in their vocabulary. Takahata had the boldness to scrap any project if it didn’t meet his expectations, even when it was 80% complete and after tens of millions of dollars were spent. And Tanabe won’t draw a line unless he was 100% sure he knew what he was drawing. (Nishimura remembers that Tanabe would come to work everyday and sit still for 8 hours even without even picking up a pen, saying ‘I don’t feel how people lived 1,000 years ago. I cannot draw.’”

This shows their sincere and desperate struggle to try to capture the reality that lay beyond the drawn line. They had to keep digging further and further, questioning themselves and to let such a reality emerge without any compromise.

And they persevered.

The trailer of “The Tale of Princess Kaguya.”  2013. Director: Isao Takahata.

This is the reality Takahata pursued.

It silently but powerfully tells us that the real “reality” is not something that is made somewhere else and all you have to do is to wait for it to be delivered. It is something you find inside you, or you have to participate in the process (even as audience). And only “real” artworks can be a catalyst to find such reality and beauty.