One of the founders of animation film factory Studio Ghibli, Takahata Isao is himself a talented painter and editor, and was previously even a mentor as such to the more famous co-Ghibli-founder Miyazaki Hayao. Takahata-san does not have as distinctive a style as Miyazaki, instead experimenting more with different techniques and often branching out to other arts as well.
Fun fact one: he is affectionately known within Studio Ghibli as "Paku-san" because he walks into the office every morning still chewing his breakfast (think Pac-Man).
Fun fact two: in this picture he is holding a Leopard of Honor, a lifetime achievement award he received from the festival of Locarno.
Now flick through the pictures, to read about some of his best-known works!
Little Prince and Eight Headed Dragon (1963)
Arguably the best known full-length animated film from Japan prior to the 1970s, Little Prince and Eight Headed Dragon was directed by Serikawa Yugo, but had Takahata attached as assistant director, marking this as his cinema debut.
It's still a fun film to this day, notable for its designs (which are often not typically "anime") and its excellent music by Ifubuke Akira, of Godzilla fame.
The Little Norse Prince (1968)
Much of what would make the films of Studio Ghibli so great (fifteen years later) can already be seen in The Little Norse Prince: stellar animation, creative fantasy, impressive action, environmental messages and a focus on strong characterization.
But Takahata Isao failed to deliver this project on time and in within its budget, and the end result had to be released with some scenes still in an unfinished state. It also failed to recoup its costs at the box office, and combined with Takahata's efforts to create an animator's union, this made him a persona-non-Grata within the industry. It would be years before he'd be allowed anywhere near a project of this magnitude again.
Don't let that deter you from watching it, though: there are some truly epic sequences in this, including the one where a town is attacked by the huge, HUGE ice mammoth seen here.
Panda! Go Panda! (1972)
After a few years of slowly building up credit again in television work, including a series of Lupin III, Takahata and Miyazaki managed to get a pitch green-lit for creating a short television film about a panda bear. Pandas were "hot" in the news at the time because of a zoo exchange program between Japan and China, and the film became a big popular success. It even got a sequel in 1973: Panda Kopanda Rainy Day Circus. Both were directed by Takahata.
While these films are kiddie stuff first and foremost, you see Takahata and Miyazaki try out several ideas which would years later be re-used in Studio Ghibli films as My Neighbor Totoro and Ponyo.
Fun fact: the Panda films use some designs, and a few plot items, from a planned-but-abandoned Pippi Longstocking anime.
Heidi: A Girl of the Alps (1974)
This is a 52-episode adaptation of Johanna Spyri's famous children's novel. In it, a small girl named Heidi is forced to live with her grandfather, a man of ill reputation living high in the Swiss Alps. She manages to de-thaw the gruff old man, loves her new pastoral surroundings, and makes many friends.
It was directed by Takahata and became a big international hit. In fact, the series is still one of the most beloved anime ever in several Alps countries like Italy, enjoying many television re-runs. Miyazaki pops up again as a contributor, this time as scene designer.
An abbreviated version of the series was released in 1975 as a movie.
Future Boy Conan (1978)
Miyazaki Hayao's 26-episode anime series Future Boy Conan marks his first major foray into apocalyptic science fiction. Based on Alexander Key's novel The Incredible Tide, the series features the adventures of Conan, a boy in a world literally shattered by a devastating war. Only a few people remain, and these are divided over several small islands, where different kinds of society have developed.
While the series is considered to be mainly a work of Miyazaki, Takahata was very much involved as well. He did much of the storyboarding and directed several of the episodes.
Chie the Brat (1981)
Chie is a feisty and loudmouthed young girl, who runs a restaurant together with her father. He is lazy though, so Chie continuously needs to prod and manage him, while juggling her school chores as well.
Adapting from a popular Japanese manga source for a change, Takahata wrote the script and directed the theatrical movie version of Chie the Brat. The film was successful enough to be continued with a long-running television series, the first few seasons of which were also directed by Takahata.
Fun fact: Takahata also composed the television series' theme tune.
Gauche the Cellist (1982)
Once again combining his love of anime and music, Takahata wrote and directed the short film Gauche the Cellist, about a boy who learns to play the cello a lot better after having received music lessons by several animals.
The film would go on to win Takataha the acclaimed Ōfuji Noburō Award for best animation.
Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984)
Bolstered by previous small successes, Miyazaki and Takahata embarked on their biggest gamble since The Little Norse Prince: an epic, apocalyptic science fiction tale about war, pollution, the environment, and humanity. Produced by Takahata, written and directed by Miyazaki, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind became one of the best anime ever created. And while it wasn't a runaway financial success (at first), it did well enough to allow Takahata and Miyazaki to found Studio Ghibli for all their future productions.
Fun fact: Hideaki Anno was a key-animator on this film, and as such responsible for much of the climactic battle. He would move on to become insanely successful a decade later with Neon Genesis: Evangelion, and is currently rumored to be planning a follow-up of sorts to Nausicaä, with Miyazaki's blessing.
Laputa, Castle in the Sky (1986)
And here it is: financed using the money and acclaim of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, the first film out of Studio Ghibli was born. Laputa, Castle in the Sky was once again an epic science-fiction story, albeit this time more of a straight action adventure. In it, a boy even has to save a princess from a tower, several times over! On a more original note: to do so, he needs to join a band of airborne pirates and find a legendary floating city.
Not changing a winning team, Laputa, Castle in the Sky was directed by Miyazaki and produced by Takahata. And like Nausicaä the film met with enough critical and financial acclaim for Studio Ghibli to continue existing.
Fun fact: according to Miyazaki, both Nausicaä and Laputa take place in the same universe and continuity.
The Story of Yanagawa's Canals (1987)
And now for something completely different: a two-and-a-half-hour long documentary about cultural preservation.
Interested in the environmental issues surrounding the village of Yanagawa, Takahata Isao filmed what happened when the question arose on what to do with its old water canals. While old and of historic value, the canals were dirty and neglected, and a possible hazard when they'd collapse. Initially slated for demolition, local resistance managed to urge the village council to restore the canals instead, and this action transformed the village into a current tourist attraction.
While not the most riveting of films perhaps, The Story of Yanagawa's Canals is a pleasant enough watch, and shows a bit of Takahata's diverse skills in different media.
Grave of the Fireflies (1988)
One of the most heralded of all animated films ever made, Grave of the Fireflies has also been described as "the best way to ruin your evening" and "suicide-inducingly depressive". Don't let that stop you from watching this though, as it truly is a hauntingly beautiful, if indeed sad, film. It starts with the ghosts of two children in Japan in 1945, and then proceeds to tell how they died. It is hard to watch, and harder to rewatch.
Based on the mostly autobiographical novel by Nosaka Akiyuki (the biggest difference with real life being that he didn't die, though his little sister did...), Grave of the Fireflies is a painstakenly made portrait of the final days of life during World War II, as seen from rural Japan. It shows its doomed protagonists having fun and being proud, as well as failing to survive. The cause of their deaths isn't so much the American bombardments, as it is the mindset of Japanese society at the time, something which Takahata emphasizes in every interview about the film.
An absolute masterpiece, this is required viewing for any film lover. Even if you maybe want to see it only once.
Fun fact one: when Miyazaki Hayao asked the legendary director Kurosawa Akira (of Seven Samurai, Ran, Kagemusha, and Rashomon fame) what his favorite Studio Ghibli film was, Kurosawa answered that it was Grave of the Fireflies. He even at length congratulated an increasingly chagrined and embarrassed Miyazaki on having made such a beautiful film, blissfully unaware that it was Takahata's film, not Miyazaki's.
Fun fact two: from its premiere onward Grave of the Fireflies was often viewed as a double-bill with the utterly uplifting My Neighbour Totoro.
Kiki's Delivery Service (1989)
Miyazaki Hayao's lovely film about the little witch Kiki is well known, and its source material is now being adapted into a live-action movie. Takahata's credit here is an unusual one: he is the music director, working closely together with famed composer Joe Hisaishi on the film's score.
Only Yesterday (1991)
If there is one film which might contest Grave of the Fireflies as Takahata's best masterpiece, it is Only Yesterday. This is an adult drama about an unmarried woman, who has doubts about her current life, relations and career, and who decides to take a working holiday on a farm in the countryside. Once there, the change in atmosphere allows her to confront many memories of her past. As written and directed by Takahata, this is a fantastic view at nostalgia, self-doubt, or just living in (at the time) contemporary Japan.
This is also a film with an impressive sucker-punch. I'll admit I was hit with a surprised feeling of "that's it?!" when the end credits started, the film being much more sedate and un-spectacular than I expected. But by the time the end credits ended, I was suddenly unable to speak for the lump in my throat. This is fantastic filmmaking on the highest of levels, and Takahata's uncanny knack to perfectly fit visuals to music makes this perhaps the most poignant film ever.
Pom Poko (1994)
Tanuki are small raccoon-like creatures, which feature in many Japanese fairy-tales, where they have magical powers like shape-shifting. In Takahata's Pom Poko, a large group of these creatures is shown to grow restless, when they discover that their living environment on the outskirts of contemporary Tokyo is about to be developed into real estate. The tanuki decide to wage a magic war on the humans, and to survive by the skin of their ehm... testicles.
This might be the weirdest feature film ever produced by Studio Ghibli, at least because of the testicle thing. But that actually IS part of tanuki magic, according to Japanese folklore, and Takahata kept it in his script to great effect. Testicle flying carpet! Testicle hoodies! Testicle parachute!
Easy jokes apart, the shape-shifting is awesomely animated, and the story has depth and poignancy, a strong Takahata trademark by now. Pom Poko was a big success in its homeland, but never really traveled that well (probably because of, you know, balls...). It was Japan's entry for the foreign-language Oscar that year though, and it got Takahata his second Ōfuji Noburō Award as a director.
My Neighbours the Yamadas (1999)
Based on a popular Japanese daily newspaper strip, Studio Ghibli's My Neighbours the Yamadas is notable for a few things. First, it's sketch comedy, a number of short jokes without a narrative. It paints a picture of the Yamada family rather than telling a story. Second, it looks totally unlike any other Studio Ghibli film. Director Takahata decide to keep the look as close to its manga origin as possible, and used a pale pastel color palette to enhance that effect.
There is plenty to laugh here, as most of the situations here are recognizable anywhere in the world, even though their settings are strictly Japanese.
Fun fact: the beginning of the film shows the Yamadas re-enacting a famous Japanese fairy-tale, in which a bamboo-cutter finds his little daughter as a baby princess in a big stalk of bamboo...
The Tale of Princess Kaguya (2013)
After Yamadas, Takahata took a long leave from feature filmmaking, concentrating instead on several other arts. But a few years ago, news hit that he was working on a new feature for Studio Ghibli again!
And indeed, last week saw the world premiere of Takahata Isao's new feature film, The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, oops, I mean The Tale of Princess Kaguya. It's currently at the top of the box office in Japan, and judging by Christopher O'Keeffe's review (linked here), I cannot wait to go see it!
In The Tale of Princess Kaguya, Takahata tells his version of a famous Japanese fairy-tale, in which a bamboo-cutter finds his little daughter as a baby princess in a big stalk of bamboo. The girl grows up faster than other kids and makes her parents rich, but unfortunately she has some difficult choices ahead of her.
Fun fact: initially scheduled to be released on the same day as Miyazaki's film The Wind Rises, Takahata's film was hit by several delays, one of which caused by Takahata switching composers quite late during the production. This means that The Tale of Princess Kaguya is the first feature film directed by Takahata with a soundtrack by Miyazaki-regular Joe Hisaishi!