What Will Become Of Takahata's Legacy?
by Justin Sevakis,
Isao Takahata was one of my favorite anime directors, and I was heartbroken when he died a few months ago. Now Ghibli's producer Toshio Suzuki is saying Takahata was an awful person, who was so hard to work for that he drove away new talent, and even was blamed for Yoshifumi Kondō's death! I'm not sure I can watch his films anymore. What will this do to Studio Ghibli's legacy?
For fans who idealized Studio Ghibli, Suzuki's revelations were a lot to swallow. I think a lot of fans who enjoy Studio Ghibli films, and haven't peeked behind the curtain so much, are shocked to discover that all of these beautiful, touching creations that brim with love and humanity are made by some pretty tough people under pretty intense conditions.
As many people know by now, Hayao Miyazaki is pretty far from the sweet old man that many people imagined from those movies. He's got a brusque demeanor, and basically no filter. He's a curmudgeon. But while Miyazaki has been extensively interviewed and profiled, had his rocky personal relationship with his son laid bare in the media, and has become something of an open book, Takahata kept a fairly low profile right up til the end of his life. He did a few interviews (in which he always appears to be this soft-spoken, thoughtful man), but we never got that warts-and-all look at him the way we have Miyazaki.
There were definite signs that Takahata wasn't the easiest guy to work for. Interviews with staff were full of hestitation and polite remarks like, "he has INCREDIBLY high standards!" Tales of his films going ludicrously over schedule and over budget are industry legend. Documentaries like The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness feature Suzuki, head-in-hands, trying to figure out how the hell he was going to deal with yet another release date delay.
For people deeply involved with filmmaking, and who know Japan's work culture, I don't think this was anywhere near as big of a shock. There's an insane amount of work, pressure, and dedication involved in creating stuff, be it animation or live action. That's not a Japan thing or an animation thing, that's an everywhere thing. People who work on sets regularly work 16-18 hour days, 6 days per week. People who make movies and TV shows almost always end up sacrificing their personal lives and their health for the work. And that's in North America. Consider that Japan's work culture is already notorious for pushing people to the brink, and people working to death is a real societal problem.
Environments like this breed stress, unhealthy attitudes, and abusiveness. Oftentimes the people who find success in showbiz are the extremely driven, motivated workaholic types. And so, far too often, entertainment is driven by somewhat broken, abusive people. They're under crushing pressure and must maintain an intense focus and sense of purpose in order to keep projects going and keep them from being affected by outside forces. Some people handle this well, treating their crew and colleagues with kindness and support regardless of how much pressure they feel - some people don't handle it so well and they let the pressure get to them, and then it spills out all over the people they work with. Things get ugly.
According to Suzuki, and perhaps according to Takahata himself, he pushed too hard, and many young talents fled Studio Ghibli. And director/animation director/character designer Yoshifumi Kondō worked himself to death, a death that had a profound effect on Miyazaki. The new revelation from Suzuki suggests, publicly for the first time, that Ghibli's core members blamed Takahata for his death. Including, perhaps, Takahata himself. We all have to decide for ourselves how to process that information, but it's important to remember don't have anything resembling all the details - their working relationship was probably pretty dark and weird, but one statement by Suzuki is not enough to give us, as outside observers, anything more than an impression.
Takahata was an innovator, constantly pushing the envelope for realism, and then later in his career, the artistic look of watercolor. He pushed his crew hard, going consistently over budget and over schedule, and ordering the same shots to be animated over, and over, and over again until they were perfect. He was part of an older generation, one that came of age in the rubble and starvation of World War II. There is a toughness to that generation, a survivalist instinct that was reflected in the intense work culture of Japan in the 80s: if there was work to be done, you did it no matter what. Ganbarimasu.
Even by those standards, according to Suzuki, he was extremely tough. Suzuki would know -- he was there. He also had his life made very difficult by Takahata's stubbornness. His films went so over budget that they gobbled up all of the profits made by Miyazaki's films. (Princess Kaguya, at a cost of ¥5 Billion, is still the most expensive Japanese film ever made, and only made half of that at the box office.) Suzuki was tasked not only with feeding his productions, but constantly having to reshuffle release dates, apologize to investors, and try to keep the studio going and Takahata moving forward. And as for Miyazaki, he wasn't even speaking to Takahata much in the last few decades, even when they were working on the same feature. For as much respect the two had for each other, even their friendship was, at best, dysfunctional.
Takahata cannot answer for these accusations, or clarify what he thought his role was in Kondo's passing. People may not have liked working for him. He may have been a horror to work for. All of those things may be true. And for all of the beauty and humanity in his films, perhaps the experience of making them was a nightmare, as it often is when working with a creative talent who's hard to please, demanding, irascible, and a bit of a terror. He wouldn't be the first. These days, it seems that as a society we are re-evaluating how much of this kind abuse at the hands of those in power we're willing to tolerate. That's a good thing. You don't need to be a jerk to lead people, and to make great things. But it's too late to change what happened decades ago.
And for all of the difficulty in working for Ghibli and for Takahata, a lot of people stayed. Kondo stayed. Producer Yoshiaki Nishimura stayed. Studio Ghibli paid animators a decent salary and gave them benefits, which is very unique among anime studios -- and that was substantially Takahata's doing after Kiki's Delivery Service redos cut animator pay down to the bone. Animators lined up to work for Ghibli -- not just for the resumé builder and the steady paycheck, but for the experience of working for the masters, and learning from them.
I can't tell you whether or not you should be able to still enjoy Takahata's work. It's a hard thing to do, to separate the artist from his art, and the extent that we're able to do that will vary greatly from person to person. Knowing too much about real life can completely distract from and ruin a film. (I sure haven't wanted to watch anything by Louis C.K. since allegations against him came out.) But Takahata's films aren't just good, they're seminal works of anime, and the product of the combined efforts of thousands of people. As much as we all wish he'd have been nicer to those who worked under him, he wasn't. That's a part of his legacy now. To me, the films themselves are strong enough to withstand that, though it may take some time. You might disagree - whatever conclusion you come to about all of this, whatever decision you make about his art, that's the right one for you.
But more importantly, he's gone. There's no punishment to mete out, no apologies to be issued, nothing to be done. All that's left is us, and these films. And each of us has to decide for ourselves how we feel about those films and his legacy now.
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Justin Sevakis has worked in the anime business for over 20 years. He's the original founder of Anime News Network, and owner of the video production company MediaOCD. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.
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