(For Takahata’s first two films, check out The Little Norse Prince & Chie the Brat)
After the success of 1981’s Chie the Brat, Isao Takahata was hired to direct what would become 1989’s Little Nemo: Adventures In Slumberland (Telecom had hoped that this film would allow them to relocate to the United States). Takahata went to the U.S. to work on the film in 1982, but a dispute over the production techniques being used would result in Takahata resigning from the film and leaving Telecom. After the success of Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind in 1984, Miyazaki invited Takahata to help co-found a new animation studio called Studio Ghibli. For this installment of Animation Corner, I’ll be looking back at Takahata’s first directorial effort for Studio Ghibli, Grave of the Fireflies (now celebrating its 25th anniversary) as well his follow-up feature, Only Yesterday.
Written and directed by Takahata, 1988’s Grave of the Fireflies centers on a a fourteen year-old boy and his younger sister as they struggle to survive during the final months of World War II in Kobe, Japan, after their mother is killed in a U.S. air raid. Featuring the voices of Tsutomu Tatsumi, Ayano Shiraishi, Yoshiko Shinohara, and Akemi Yamaguchi, this critically acclaimed film was released as part of a double feature with Miyazaki’s My Neighbor Totoro but didn’t do well at the box office in Japan (the grimness of the film turned away a lot of people). A couple of years after its release, Totoro and Catbus dolls hit store shelves and sold extremely well, bringing in enough money to help both My Neighbor Totoro and Grave of the Fireflies break even and help finance future Studio Ghibli films. Based on the 1967 semi-autobiographical novel by Akiyuki Nosaka, the film was given the go-ahead to be developed as an animated film after Nosaka was shown storyboards and he expressed his surprise in how the scenery in his novel was accurately depicted. Most of the illustration outlines in the film were done in brown rather than the customary black in order to give the film a softer feel (which was a first for an anime film). Michio Mamiya contributed a haunting score for this film. Among the people who championed the film in the U.S. were film director Terry Gilliam and film critic Roger Ebert. Among the film’s accolades are a Blue Ribbon Special Award and two awards from the 1994 Chicago International Children’s Film Festival (the Animation Jury Award and the Rights of the Child Award).
Written and directed by Takahata, 1991’s Only Yesterday centers on an unmarried 27 year-old Tokyo woman in 1982 who takes a trip to the rural countryside and starts to recall memories of her childhood in 1966. She becomes increasingly nostalgic for her childhood self while grappling with her adult career as well as her love life (or lack thereof). Featuring the voices of Miki Imai, Toshiro Yanagiba, Yoko Honna, Michie Terada, and Masahiro Ito, this critically acclaimed film was the highest grossing film in Japan in 1991, grossing over $18.8 million. Based on the manga by Hotaru Okamoto and Yuko Tone, the film employs more realistic facial muscles and expressions for the characters (which was uncharacteristic of the typical Japanese character animation style). This approach led to most of the dialogue being recorded first and then the animators fit the dialogue to the characters. Disney holds the U.S. distribution rights to the film but has yet to release it on any format due to references made in the film to menstruation (it has screened as part of a Studio Ghibli retrospective in late 2011 and late 2012 at the IFC Center in New York City).