[ANIMATION] Isao Takahata - A Giant in Animation
- Animator's originality revealed in bold strokes
Screenings to showcase the restless curiosity and creative energy of
Isao Takahata, a longtime collaborator of Hayao Miyazaki.
By Luis Reyes, Special to The Times
For the last 30 years, directors Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata
have dominated Japanese animation, and their film and TV work has
been easily among the most-watched screen entertainment in Japan.
Miyazaki, if not exactly a household name here, has at least gained
some recognition in the United States through his "Princess
Mononoke" and the Oscar-winning "Spirited Away."
Less clearly imprinted on the American consciousness, however, is
Miyazaki's longtime partner and co-founder of the illustrious Studio
Ghibli, Isao Takahata, who will be in town this weekend as the
keynote speaker Saturday at a USC symposium on "Animation and the
Contemporary Japanese Imagination." As an addendum to that
symposium, the organizers have arranged screenings today and
Saturday of four seminal Takahata films.
A curious and inquisitive man, Takahata's adventurous canon spans
vastly different styles and themes, seldom if ever treading the same
terrain twice. The four films screening this weekend represent the
divergent and myriad art of this Japanese animation legend.
His most famous work, "Grave of the Fireflies," is a chilling
portrait of firebombed Tokyo at the end of World War II. Seita and
his younger sister Setsuko, both orphaned by the American
bombardment, have to find ways to survive amid catastrophic
destruction, famine and pervasive misery. Their homes obliterated,
and abandoned by their community, the children bear witness to the
very savagery that society was designed to supplant.
By contrast, "Only Yesterday" which will screen Saturday at the
Ron Howard Screening Room at the Zemeckis Center, separate from the
other films in the event features a 27-year-old Tokyo woman in the
1980s reflecting on 1966, the year she came of age, fell in love and
went into ecstasy at the news that the Beatles were going to tour
Japan. Unmarried, uninspired and dispossessed, the woman discovers
this nostalgia brings her life into focus, but it raises more
questions about herself than she knew she even had.
Raccoon-like animals called Tanuki, armed with an almost tribal
magic, take a stand against the sprawling Tokyo suburbs in "Pom
Poko." More than a sociopolitical slap in the face to the industries
of runaway urbanism, Takahata's film brings to life a whole society
of creatures trapped in the perilous divide between mankind and
Mother Nature, driving that society to desperate and horrifying
measures to preserve its way of life while maintaining a delicate
comic tone throughout.
Probably the most stylized piece in the Takahata canon is "My
Neighbors the Yamadas." Rendered in Japanese ink wash and designed
to look like the etchings of a child, it is a surreal look at
nuclear family dynamics.
Though the narrative is very much anchored to a realistic filial
unit, the storytelling technique goes the way of dreamscape logic; a
wedding cake transforms into a metaphorical mountain down which the
bride and groom tear in a bobsled, which in turn becomes a ship
sailing through a metaphorical storm all while a matriarch
delivers a wedding speech about the trials and tribulations of
Save for a few monumental pieces, Japanese animation has become
popular in the U.S. only over the last 10 years, getting a boost
from the success of television franchises such as Pokémon and the
cavalcade of like products that followed it. In that wake, Japanese
animated films are only beginning to enjoy popular appeal. In light
of this, superficial comparisons are nearly unavoidable, primarily
to Disney but also to a smattering of offerings from Fox,
DreamWorks, Warner Bros. and others.
Much of how each country conceives of animated films has a lot to do
with the societal connotation of animated films. In this country
and there are magnificent exceptions animated films are
intrinsically understood to be youth entertainment, whereas in
Japan, animation has avoided such a label and is avidly watched and
appreciated by the public en masse.
Yet even though animation attracts adults and kids of both genders
in Japan, individual films are still made for specific markets
teenage boys or girls, young or mature adults, and for the most part
don't appeal to broader audiences. Takahata and Miyazaki's work
reaches beyond those boundaries, and their films are as commercially
successful as big action films from the U.S., or even more so.
Takahata's films have an ability to appeal to a universal audience,
and he earnestly aims to reach everyone. Although his films contain
mature subject material that can be construed as offensive, Takahata
speaks a kind of cinematic language that is at once compelling to an
8-year-old and an 80-year old. He is not afraid to give children a
glimpse of emotional gravity, despair or horror, while also
enchanting them with magic, curiosity and wonder. Nor does he eschew
dishing to adults youthful giddiness while engaging them in his
brand of serious discourse. And in this way Takahata transcends, as
does Miyazaki, the niche dilemma in which most American animation
finds itself stuck.
Films of Isao Takahata
Where: Pacific Theatre, 6433 Hollywood Blvd.
"Grave of the Fireflies," 2 p.m.
"My Neighbors the Yamadas,"
"Pom Poko," 6:30 p.m.
Q&A with Takahata, 8:30 p.m.
Where: Zemeckis Center, 3131 S. Figueroa St.
"Only Yesterday," 1:15 p.m.
Price: Free, but reservation required for Saturday screening