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Andrew Osmond on why the Kaguya director deserves an Oscar

On February 22nd, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, directed by Isao Takahata, will compete at the eighty-seventh Academy Awards. It’s a moment long overdue. Takahata has been called the Ozu of animation; it’s a medium he’s worked in since 1959, making both rarefied artworks and nationally-beloved favourites. The sweep of his work is discussed below, but first, let’s focus on one of his films as an exemplar; the 1991 Ghibli film Only Yesterday. Like many of Takahata’s anime, its distribution has been limited. It’s available on British DVD from Studio Canal, but to date it’s never had a home release in America.

Only Yesterday was the fifth theatrical feature from Ghibli (excluding the proto-Ghibli Nausicaa). Hayao Miyazaki picked the property, a strip about a perky ten year-old girl in 1960s Tokyo. It was a series of childhood vignettes rather than a narrative, so Miyazaki gave it to his senior and mentor Takahata, director of The Little Norse Prince and Grave of the Fireflies. “I knew instinctively that he was the only person who could turn it into a film,” Miyazaki said, joking that Takahata’s approach was “typically complicated.”

In the film, the child scenes remain vignettes. We see the girl, Taeko, in family squabbles and schoolyard embarrassments, some linked to intimations of puberty. (The giggling schoolboys overhear that girls have periods, which they think are worse than nits). These scenes are funny and charming, especially a class meeting about school rules, where the swots clash with the clowns. However, there are also abrasive moments that it’s hard to imagine in a Miyazaki film. For example, Taeko’s father strikes his little girl angrily in the face, then can’t hide his guilt.

On top of all this, Takahata invented a framing story, half-romance, half-documentary. In this second narrative, a 27-year old Taeko remembers her childhood as she travels to the country for a working holiday, picking flowers for rouge and dye. Taeko was born and bred in Tokyo, but her soul belongs to the country. There are passages of reverie, successive snapshots of pastoral tranquility. Rather than Miyazaki, they recall Mamoru Oshii’s rhetorical visuals in Patlabor 2 and Ghost in the Shell.

Taeko’s girlhood predominates in Only Yesterday’s first half; then the adult scenes take over, though we often return to ten year-old Taeko. Viewers may find the farm scenes interminably preachy, yet they seem purposefully provocative as Takahata buttonholes us with his pastoral hard sell. The director busts animated form, showing Taeko and a cute male farmer, Toshio, on a long car drive through a misty dawn while Toshio explains his calling (“We bring out the plant’s life force”). Many live-action films, let alone animated ones, would avoid the scene as undramatic. Even the extended stoner conversations in Richard Linklater’s animated A Scanner Darkly gave us images of famous actors to look at. Takahata, though, plonks the scene in for us to like or lump.

The realism of Only Yesterday’s grown-up scenes is broken by heavily stylised elements. Three farm workers are introduced, each smiling in layered rural backgrounds like diorama figures while pan pipes play. These artificial devices lend irony to Toshio’s later speech, where he explains that the “wild” Japanese woods and streams are crafted by humans, while we see drawings of those same woods and streams. “I don’t think audiences watch live-action features carefully,” Takahata said. “However, they’d be forced to for an animated feature, because animation catches things we do and reflects reality more solidly than it actually is.”

The child scenes, though, are less solid. There are delicate watercolours, simplified characters with cartooned expressions, and white spaces that have an especially interesting effect when a boy baseball star appears in sports whites. The contrasting styles suggest two different films entwining, as personal identity (Taeko’s memories) is set against national identity (Japan’s farm heritage).

The young Taeko shyly meets a boy at sunset and the backgrounds glow pinkly, till the scene tips into first-love fantasy and she runs up into the sky. Soon after, there’s a ravishing hyper-realist scene where the adult Taeko sees the sun rise over dewy fields. It’s part of Takahata’s overtly pro-country propaganda, yet he later shows an equally realistic, adult encounter, no less delicate or touching than the children’s. Again it’s set in the car, where Taeko talks out a troubling memory that Toshio finds he can enter.

Thinking back, the adult Taeko abruptly generalises about her sex. “We girls were livelier and more spirited than guys; it was like we’d finally found our wings. But looking back now, maybe we were just flexing them pointlessly.” At the end, Taeko is encouraged to marry Toshio and stay in the country, forsaking her urban career. Yet whatever Takahata’s prescriptive intentions, his film inclines us to trust less the teller or tale than Taeko herself. The reverse of the quailing boy Seito in Grave of the Fireflies, she’s driven to excel in arduous experiences: farming, acting, bathing in a hot-spring onsen, even eating an exotic pineapple. Sensitive, articulate and forthright, Taeko brings this contradictory film together.

As mentioned above, Only Yesterday has never come to US home video. Some fans insist it’s because one sequence refers to menstruation, which supposedly gave the vapours to Disney, Ghibli’s distributor till recently. (These fans clearly don’t know Disney’s animation history.) It’s far more likely that the overall film was judged too difficult and ‘niche’ to be a success in America. Hopefully GKIDS, which now distributes Ghibli stateside, will be bolder. As we’ve noted before, adult animated films (in the true grown-up sense) have advanced in the last decade, through anime and world titles: From Up on Poppy Hill, The Wind Rises, The Illusionist, Chico and Rita, Persepolis, Waltz with Bashir, Wrinkles and more.   

Takahata’s other Ghibli films are available in America and Britain, but they represent only part of his work. His made his first feature twenty years earlier; it’s the 1968 hero adventure The Little Norse Prince, also known as The Adventure of Hols Prince of the Sun (Japanese trailer here). It’s available in Britain under the Prince title from Studio Canal, and in an extras-laden Discotek edition in America under yet another name: Horus, Prince of the Sun.

Of Takahata’s 1970s works, only his cute kids’ Panda! Go Panda films have been released in English. Missing are his TV anime epics, still remembered with love in Japan: the landmark Heidi in 1974, followed in 1976 by 3,000 Miles in Search of Mother (aka Marco) and then by Anne of Green Gables in 1979. Each was broadcast over one year; together they amount to more than a hundred and fifty episodes of weekly television, or about sixty hours of animation – more than all the Ghibli films put together.

Takahata’s pre-Ghibli work in the early 1980s, most notably the Osaka comedy Chie the Brat (aka Downtown Story) and the folktale Gauche the Cellist are also missing. It seems doubtful whether that any of them will ever be translated. Sales for pre-Akira anime are rarely strong in the West, and none of these works have fantasy battles like Norse Prince. Commercial considerations mean it’s also highly unlikely we’ll see Takahata’s foray into live-action, the long documentary The Story of Yanagawa’s Canals.

Along with the under-representation of Takahata’s oeuvre in the West, there are issues with his Ghibli films which can be seen. While they’re all genre-breaking films, it’s hard to see the authorial continuity between them. Each of Takahata’s five Ghiblis – Grave of the Fireflies, Only Yesterday, Pom Poko, My Neighbours the Yamadas and Princess Kaguya – seems extremely different from each other.

One obvious link is they’re all rooted in Japan (in contrast to Takahata’s pre-Ghibli anime, which travels the globe from Heidi’s Alps to Anne’s Prince Edward Island). Another, highlighted in interviews by Takahata himself, is the objectivity of his storytelling. The director shies away from using particular characters as identification figures for the viewers, or from overtly judging their actions. It’s a matter of degree. Miyazaki’s films can be highly objective too (though often lapsing in ‘hero’ moments); so is the work of an American animation director such as Brad Bird (The Incredibles). But moments such as a parent striking a child in Only Yesterday, or characters such as Fireflies’ boy lead, with his tragic lack of self-consciousness and awareness, feel distinctively Takahata.

Another link is the director’s use of unconventional narratives, even anti-narratives. Only Yesterday, as we saw, looks like two different films fused together. Grave of the Fireflies, memorably, starts at its end (‘This is the night I died’). It’s not the only film to do so, but few pictures have such a painfully doomed trajectory.

Pom Poko, about magic animals (the fabled canine ‘tanuki’) fighting humans, has no central heroes, no smooth momentum. Rather it conveys a messy history of a shambolic movement, bogging down and fragmenting. It’s a cautionary tale for political radicals everywhere, festooned with scenes from Japan’s nature, folklore and campfire spook stories. My Neighbours the Yamadas is a series of skits, many very brief. If you’re seeing it for the first time, think of it as an anime Peanuts and you’ll be fine

Princess Kaguya seems to break the anti-narrative trend. It does have a very clear story, which may be fortuitous at the Oscars. Even here, though, it has something to daunt casual viewers; Takahata tells his tale at a luxuriant 137 minutes! It’s clearly the length he thinks proper for a tale that’s resonated through more than a millennium of Japanese culture, but it may also reflect something much simpler. Takahata loves animation, and he makes films for people who love it as he does.

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