Studio Ghibli has been a powerful part of both of our lives as otaku, inspiring nightmares, empowerment and the hope that we can each be heroes in our own way. It’s safe to say that its legacy wouldn’t have held quite the same place in our hearts without co-founder Isao Takahata, whom we have sadly lost. Where Hayao Miyazaki brought the whimsy, enchantment and flights of fancy borne on pure fantasy, he brought the introspection, delicacy and the darkness of our real world.
Wreathed in black and gold, the acclaimed war drama Grave of the Fireflies would become the first film Takahata directed at Ghibli. Before that, he produced on Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind and Laputa: Castle in the Sky, but this was his mark and mission statement, his Ghibli. Chronicling the travels of Seita and Setsuko, a brother and sister scraping and stealing to survive the last desperate months of World War II, this story and many to come was spun from the tangled threads of his life, and life itself. Takahata himself survived a US air raid on Okayama City in 1945, when he was only nine years old.
Picking through the rough gems and wreckage of memory, his purpose to make the darkness beautiful, became a signature aspect of Takahata’s filmmaking. There is a bittersweet nostalgia at the core of Only Yesterday, in which Taeko takes a trip to the countryside home of her brother-in-law. Such tangential connections to her childhood, amidst dissatisfaction with her life and career in Tokyo, nonetheless break ground on a wellspring of her own submerged memories. Some are held with fondness, while others she would rather stayed buried. But all of them help her face the truth of who she is, and how she might reconcile and reunite her childhood self with her adult self to reach fulfilment.
As recapturing innocence draws our integral light from the darkest veins of memory, so this theme pervaded Takahata’s works to the end. His final film, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, ensconced this connecting thread of his art in the purity of fairytale, that bastion of innocence. It is the closest film of his to our hearts for that reason, as it defines the significance of the life we came from, and the one we look forward to with our newborn daughter.
Princess Kaguya reminds me of my childhood with Thumbelina, its painstakingly painted sakura blossom my great aunt’s watercolours, memories of her teaching me how to create the impression of petals, leaves, dragon scales, a still lake. The purity of new life and the flaws of a father’s doting on his daughter is held within its white space, and the mourning in the inevitable loss of a child to the bigger world beyond that love. We see the deeper sadness to its beauty since we’ve had our daughter in our lives, and will surely be holding back our tears when we introduce it to her. In the eight years it took Takahata to complete his vision of a fairy in a bamboo shoot, our Lorelei will be dipping her toes into striking out as her own person, figuring out her identity separate from the two of us, just like Kaguya.
Isao Takahata made Ghibli a studio for every audience, embodying every shade in its prism of theme and story. He captured the devastating violence of the human nature in Grave of the Fireflies, and gave us a fairytale full of wistful wonder in Princess Kaguya. His work, in its many layers of light and dark, brings generations together in appreciation of his art, and all it means to us through reflection, compassion, memory and hope.