Isao Takahata, who co-founded celebrated Japanese animation house Studio Ghibli with his long-time friend Hayao Miyazaki—and whose work for the studio included Grave Of The Fireflies, one of the most painful, dark, and beautiful films in the history of war cinema—has died. Takahata was 82.
Although not an animator by trade, Takahata struggled for many years to break into the industry as a director; his first major effort, The Great Adventure Of Horus, Prince Of The Sun, was a serious flop, signalling his demotion at Toei Animation. The film had a bright side, though, serving as the first collaboration between Takahata and Miyazaki, one that would stretch across the next 50 years of animation. The pair got a major break together in the early ’70s, when they were tapped to work on a well-received animated adaptation of Johanna Spyri’s Swiss classic Heidi. A few years later, Takahata earned similar acclaim for his directing on an adaptation of another Western children’s classic, Anne Of Green Gables.
Although he continued to suffer occasional career setbacks—most notably, a brief stint on the ill-fated Little Nemo movie, a collaboration between Japanese animators and Western filmmakers that Takahata departed after creative differences about the film’s direction—Takahata readily said yes when Miyazaki asked him to co-found a studio in the wake of the success of his Nausicaa Of The Valley Of The Wind. (Years later, Takahata would receive a lifetime achievement award named in honor of Nemo’s creator, Winsor McCay, from the International Animated Film Society). Takahata’s first effort, Grave Of The Fireflies, helped to solidify Ghibli’s reputation, not just as a great animation studio, but as an important fixture of Japanese cinema, period.
Inspired, in part, by Takahata’s own experience of bombing raids and privation as a child during World War II, Grave Of The Fireflies tells the profoundly bittersweet story of Seita and Setsuko, a brother and sister struggling to survive in the war’s waning days. (The film’s placement on our Inventory of “Great films too painful to watch twice” might give you an idea of how well it goes.) Both deeply grim, and movingly warm, it’s widely considered Takahata’s masterpiece, and is easily the most beloved piece of Studio Ghibli output not directed by Miyazaki himself.
Speaking of: Takahata was also an avid fan of music, and thus served as the musical director on his friend’s Kiki’s Delivery Service. The two continued to collaborate and produce together for many years and, like Miyazaki, Takahata continued to direct films well into his 70s; his most recent feature, 2013's lush and beautiful folktale The Tale Of The Princess Kaguya, was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Animated Film.