Isao Takahata has died, Thursday. He was said to have been in declining health with a weakened heart since the last summer. He died at the age of 82 in a Tokyo hospital.
Isao Takahata was the co-founder of Studio Ghibli together with long-time collaborator Hayao Miyazaki. He was also the acclaimed director of “Grave of the Fireflies,” “The Tale of the Princess Kaguya” and other animated features.
Takahata joined Toei Animation after college and made his feature debut as a director with the 1968 “Horus: Prince of the Sun.”
In 1971 Takahata, together with Miyazaki and Yoichi Kotabe, left Toei for Shin-Ei Animation studio. There he directed episodes of “Lupin II,” an comedy-inflected action-adventure TV series.
His best-remembered TV work from this period, however, is “Heidi, Girl of the Alps,” a 1974 series based on the classic novel that he directed for Nippon Animation.
In 1985, together with Miyazaki and producer Toshio Suzuki, Takahata launched Studio Ghibli. His first film for the studio, “Grave of the Fireflies,” was released together with Miayzaki’s “My Neighbor Totoro” in 1988. The two films did modest business, but later grew in esteem as classics of the animated form. Based on an autobiographical story by author Akiyuki Nosaka about the struggles of a young teenage boy and his 4-year-old sister in the waning days of WWII, the film was later described by critic Roger Ebert as “an emotional experience so powerful that it forces a rethinking of animation.”
Takahata enjoyed greater commercial success with “Pom Poko,” a 1994 animated fantasy-adventure that drew heavily on Japanese folklore while critiquing rampant postwar development near Tokyo where the film’s tanuki (Japanese raccoon dogs) live. The top-earning Japanese film for the year, “Pom Poko” was also chosen as Japan’s entry for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar.
After the commercial failure of 1999’s “My Neighbors the Yamada,” he took a long hiatus from directing. He returned with the 2013 “The Tale of the Princess Kaguya,” a box office success and a critical triumph. Based on the classic folktale “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter,” the film was animated with a water-color-like beauty and fluidity seldom seen in commercial animation. It was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature.
Takahata never directed another film, though he served as artistic producer on “The Red Turtle,” a dialogue-less feature by Dutch animator Michaël Dudok de Wit was that was co-produced with Studio Ghilbi. Released in Japan in September 2016, the film was nominated for Best Animated Feature Film, among other honors.
Though Takahata himself was not an animator, he was an innovator, constantly seeking out fresh storytelling methods and artistic approaches, while constantly aiming for realism of emotion and setting. He was also a scholar of Japanese animation’s roots in ancient literature and art.
Our prayers are with his family and friends during this difficult time. R.I.P!