Isao Takahata is a Japanese screenwriter, producer, and director who first became interested in animation after having seen and been impressed by the 1952 version of the French animated feature The King and the Mockingbird (which would eventually be completed in 1980). In 1961, he found out from a friend that Toei Animation was looking for an assistant director. He took the entrance exam and passed, joining the company. There were a lot of people joining the company that same year, so it took him longer than he had expected to work up to director. After several years, Takahata finally got his chance to direct his first feature film after being recommended by Yasuo Ōtsuka, who was both his instructor and Hayao Miyazaki’s. For this installment of Animation Corner, I’ll be looking back at Takahata’s debut feature The Little Norse Prince (now celebrating its 45th anniversary) as well his follow-up feature, Chie the Brat.
Directed by Takahata, 1968’s The Little Norse Prince centers on a boy who tries to protect a Scandinavian village from a wizard, but things get complicated due to the villagers not fully trusting him and he must deal with a mysterious girl with a dark secret. Featuring the voices of Hisako Ohkata, Etsuko Ichihara, Mikijiro Hira, Hisashi Yokomori, Tadashi Yokouchi, and Yukari Asai, this critically acclaimed film was a box office failure because it only played for 10 days. Its initial production schedule was eight months, but it ended up taking more than three years to complete it mainly due to the huge labor dispute between the artists and Toei. Many of the crew members, who were young, wanted to make a film that was completely different from the Disney films and the films that Toei had been making up until that point. The film’s theme was about unity among the people, and the crew members wanted to reflect this theme during the production process by incorporating many of their ideas into the film. The Scandinavian setting was chosen by the producers so that the film would have an international appeal. Hayao Miyazaki, who was an in-between animator at Toei, was credited as chief animator and scene designer on this film since so many of his ideas were incorporated into the film. Takahata was demoted after the film came out and was never allowed to direct another film for Toei ever again. Despite the box office failure, the film became an immediate underground hit amongst Japanese students and young anime artists (the film’s theme appealed especially to those in student and union movements). The film is now considered to be the first modern anime.
Directed by Takahata, 1981’s Chie the Brat centers on a young girl named Chie who manages her family’s diner in Osaka, Japan, while dealing with her parents’ separation and other oddball characters on a daily basis. Featuring the voices of Chinatsu Nakayama, Norio Nishikawa, Kiyoshi Nishikawa, Yoshio Kamigata, Yasushi Yokoyama, Shinsuke Shimada, Ryusuke Matsumoto, and Utako Kyo, this critically acclaimed film was based on the manga by Etsumi Haruki and was successful enough that it launched a TV series based on the manga. Tokyo Movie Shinsha (TMS) and Telecom Animation Film, who were producing the film, first offered the director’s chair to Hayao Miyazaki. When he declined, the offer was made to Takahata, who was with Nippon Animation at the time (and had not directed a feature film since The Little Norse Prince). He initially declined but then reconsidered since he had a very good understanding of Osaka, where the story takes place. He left Nippon and joined TMS, and he would contribute to the screenplay as well as direct.