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Jeremy Clarke on a documentary about Isao Takahata’s remarkable feature

There’s a real treat in store for all those eagerly awaiting the UK theatrical release on 20th March of Studio Ghibi’s Oscar-nominated The Tale Of The Princess Kaguya. In selected cinemas, alongside the film itself, comes a superb documentary entitled Isao Takahata and his Tale of Princess Kaguya. It’s actually a two-parter made for Japanese TV, which means that around 42 minutes into the 85 minute running length it’s interrupted by end program credits and new opening titles. Despite this obvious break, the documentary hangs together effectively as a single piece. Unlike so many puff-piece Making Of featurettes which promote the feature film in question but fail to provide any in depth sense of how a production came to be made, this bona fide documentary really gets under the creative skin of the process.

Miyazaki and Takahata founded Studio Ghibli in 1985 following the success of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind which was written and directed by Miyazaki and produced by Takahata. Miyazaki’s subsequent filmography at Ghibli demonstrates a certain reliability. Between 1984 and 1994 he wrote and directed a feature roughly every two years. Between 1995 and 2013 he was less prolific but wrote and directed a feature roughly every four years. Takahata’s output was smaller: an animated feature roughly every four years between 1986 and 1999. For more on his earlier work, see here.

Takahata’s 1999 animated feature My Neighbours The Yamadas broke the visual Ghibli mould, fared poorly at the Japanese box office and halted the director’s output. The production saw Ghibli depart from the traditional, 2D industrial cel animation process to retool with computers. Takahata wasn’t aping the “more is better” full 3D animation embraced by contemporary Hollywood but rather attempting to enhance the very essence of drawing, making marks on a flat surface, which is the foundation of 2D animation. In terms of artistry, this was a radical innovation. In terms of the Studio’s everyday production economics, it was a disaster. When the Studio returned to more familiar ways of working on Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, there was a collective corporate sigh of relief. Yet that and subsequent films benefited from Takahata’s bringing in computer technology.

After Yamadas, Takahata went into creative limbo. However the film had a huge admirer in Nippon Television Network executive Seiichiro Ujiie who approached Ghibli in 2005. He wanted to fund another Takahata film so he could go happily to the grave knowing he’d done so. He didn’t care whether it made money or not as long as Takahata’s vision reached the screen. Longstanding Ghilbli producer Toshio Suzuki claims there was more than a little in-house apprehension about this project. Nevertheless, younger producer Yoshiaki Nishimura was assigned and spent 18 months talking to Takahata 12 hours a day, 6 days a week before the latter, who’d originally proposed The Tale of the Princess Kaguya as a Ghibli film, could be persuaded to direct it himself. “I had an artist who didn’t want to make a movie,” says Nishimura, “and an artist who didn’t want to draw.” Five years of planning followed.

In the documentary, Takahata says he loves what happens when animators first draw ‘roughs’, but that all the energy and excitement of those drawings is lost by the process of ‘clean-up’, i.e. removing all the rough lines to make the drawings compatible with the traditional 2D animation production line. Much of his time is taken up with working on a Quick Action Recorder (QAR) into which animation drawings are fed so that the animation can be viewed and manipulated. In a scene you’ll want to loop and view again a dozen times on the DVD, a split screen shows a before and after of the heroine running along a walkway. Takahata changes the sequence by moving six frames to achieve a slightly different effect with the animation.

After much consideration, the director hired composer Joe Hisaishi, known in the West for his scores for Takeshi Kitano as well as Miyazaki. On Takahata’s desk can be seen the soundtrack CD of the Japanese thriller Villain (Akunin), Hisaishi’s score for which Takahata admires for its simplicity – the film is released on Third Window DVD in the UK. Although Hisaishi had never before scored a Takahata film, there’s a professional connection. It was Takahata in his role as producer of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind who suggested Hisaishi as that film’s composer. This led to Hisaishi scoring Miyazaki’s subsequent features, for which Hisaishi felt indebted to Takahata.

As the film’s release date kept going back, Takahata was still grappling at storyboard level with his one major change to the source material. He wanted his heroine, during her time on Earth, to achieve her dreams rather than merely return to the moon. So she first revisits the countryside to be briefly reunited with her childhood sweetheart for a joint flying sequence. Hisaishi had two demos for the scene rejected. At the final music recording session with an orchestra, he adapted the music employed in the Princess’ childhood, linking that period’s happiness to her joy of life. Fortunately, Takahata liked it.

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya and its attendant documentary open in selected UK cinemas on 20th March.

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