Now Isao Takahata belongs to the ages, and we are left with the terrible, dull ache.
This is a devastating loss. We have lost a true legend, a true artist and the greatest animation director who ever lived. Nobody else comes close, not Hayao Miyazaki, not Chuck Jones, not even Walt Disney. Paku-san is the king. He revolutionized the medium by bringing a literary, cinematic quality to animation, by introducing elements of French New Wave and Neo-Realism, inspired by the films of Orson Welles, Jean Renoir, Sergei Eisenstein, Igmar Bergman.
I wouldn’t be writing about these movies today if not for Grave of the Fireflies, which I watched in 2001. The experience was devastating, like being run over by a truck, but I wanted to know more about the artist who created such a radical movie. Who would think to create “neo-realist” animation? Does such a concept even exist in the West? Over many years, I discovered Paku-san’s other films, from Horus, Prince of the Sun to The Tale of the Princess Kaguya. Every movie was a discovery, a miracle, and an emotionally overwhelming experience.
To this day, I think Omohide Poro Poro is the greatest animated feature film ever made, and the 1970s television “trilogy” of Heidi, Girl of the Alps, Marco/3000 Leagues in Search of Mother and Anne of Green Gables stands as Takahata’s and Miyazaki’s crowning masterpieces. All of his works are masterpieces. All of them.
I was very proud to work on the DVD and Blu-Ray releases of Horus, Prince of the Sun, the 1968 Toei Doga animated feature that revolutionized Japanese animation and gave birth to “modern anime” as a species separate from the Western Disney mold. I wrote the English subtitles, the written essays, provided the production art galleries, recorded two audio commentary tracks (I’m embarrassed by my DVD recording, but proud of my Blu-Ray recording which is entirely different). I am especially proud that I fought so hard to preserve the movie’s title, as Toei insisted on using that ridiculous “Little Norse Prince” tag that never should have existed. Even today, we are still struggling to prove that animation is more than an “electric babysitter” designed solely to pacify toddlers.
Isao Takahata had such a brilliant mind, such a towering intellect, and was so knowledgeable on so many subjects. I’m glad that we in the West can see his movies, either through home video or fan translations. I hope we can one day see his many excellent books published, including his memoirs and his book on 14th Century Japanese scroll paintings.
Isao Takahata is best known for his life-long partnership with Hayao Miyazaki, which stretches from Toei Doga to Studio Ghibli. The two were very similar yet different in many ways. They always reminded me of Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock. One was impulsive, passionate; the other meditative, logical. Together, they gave us so many wonderful stories, like Heidi, Girl of the Alps, which is easily their most successful work, having been translated in over 20 languages around the world.
In 1985, Takahata and Miyazaki founded Studio Ghibli, whose movies have become internationally famous and beloved by millions. Hayao Miyazaki has won two Academy Awards, while Takahata was nominated for his final masterpiece, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya.
Isao Takahata died after a battle with lung cancer (he had been a lifelong smoker). After his passing, it was revealed that he had been suffering from cancer and heart disease, and was in steadily declining health for much of the past year.
According to a recent news article, Hayao Miyazaki is in a state of deep shock over the death of Takahata, whom he affectionately called “Paku-san” (in the Toei days, he would often rush into work late, furiously chomping down his breakfast). I have no doubt this is true. He has lost his older brother, his partner and colleague to whom he owes absolutely everything. Miyazaki is absolutely devastated.
Paku-san was a visionary genius. We will never see his likes again. Thankfully, we have his magnificent movies and books to remember him. He speaks to us and to future generations through Horus, Heidi, Gauche the Cellist, Grave of the Fireflies, Omohide Poro Poro and Princess Kaguya. We were lucky to have known him.
So long, Frank Lloyd Wright.
All of the nights we’d harmonize ’till dawn.
I never laughed so long.