The Mike Toole Show
A couple of weeks back, I once again found myself sitting in the dark in an uncomfortable chair, watching anime. But this time it wasn't 2:45am, and I wasn't all alone, hunched over my home office PC, watching episode after episode of Teekyu. I was at the Brattle, a small movie theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where myself and a few dozen others sat quietly and allowed The Tale of Princess Kaguya, Isao Takahata's newest film, to wash over us.
Takahata's movies are like that. They don't storm into your consciousness, like Satoshi Kon's films, or colonize your imagination, as Hayao Miyazaki's works sometimes do. They patiently and gradually fill your senses up, guided by their director's expert hand. As we shared this experience in the theater, we had something else to look forward to, as well: The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness, a documentary focusing on Miyazaki, Takahata, and their producer, Toshio Suzuki, as they prepared their newest films for release. Miyazaki's well-known to the public, but Takahata? Not so much. Maybe this rare look inside Ghibli would shed some light on his creative process.
Or maybe not. Kingdom of Dreams and Madness is a fine and engrossing film, but it's more of a study of Miyazaki and his obsessions than it is a look at Ghibli's overall operations. Plenty of time is spared for Suzuki, but Takahata is conspicuously absent from the lengthy interviews with the folks around Ghibli HQ. It's funny, he's featured on the poster, but seldom seen in the actual movie; you could say that he's the Boba Fett of Kingdom of Dreams and Madness. Miyazaki, for his part, affectionately refers to Takahata as “Paku-san” and frets about him daily. One of my favorite moments of the film is archival footage of an old party in Takahata's honor, with Miyazaki boisterously singing the lyrics to the theme song for Ken the Wolf Boy, Takahata's debut as a TV anime director. Only instead of “Always crying out, burning with life!” Miyazaki opens the song with “Always re-using the same animation over and over!” The men have that kind of relationship; they've been near-constant partners since the late 1960s, when their work on Adventure of Horus: Prince of the Sun saw them become unlikely cohorts in a work stoppage.
Despite being historically pro-worker, Miyazaki will tell you that Takahata was obliged to drag him into the strike, largely for his public speaking ability. (This is hilariously difficult to picture, given Miyazaki's endearingly gruff, grouchy disposition nowadays.) Partly as a result of this, Horus, which was supposed to be arty but boilerplate medieval fantasy, mutated into a protest film; it's not merely a heroic tale of good versus evil, but the story of a village of people with different interests banding together for common cause. It also took three years to finish in an era when a typical Toei movie took eight months, establishing a trend for wildly bloated scheduling that Takahata upholds to this day. The fallout from the work stoppage also resulted in Horus, a fine but somewhat unrefined film, being rushed in and out of theaters in eight days and hastily dubbed a bomb by studio head Hiroshi Okawa, which gave him the excuse he needed to demote the troublemaking Takahata.
It's funny, though, because Horus wasn't Takahata's first foray into mythic storytelling. When he wasn't leading the troops in TV productions like Hustle Punch, Takahata served as assistant director on the Toei films The Littlest Warrior and Little Prince and the Eight-Headed Dragon. The former movie, a less grim retelling of the classic Sansho the Bailiff with wacky animal buddies, is typical of the Taiji Yabushita-helmed films that marked the dawn of Toei's foray into animation – beautifully colored, with soft, rounded character designs. It's seldom discussed, even amongst the weirdos like me who seek out old anime, because it just isn't that good.
Little Prince and the Eight Headed Dragon, a stylized action-packed retelling of the myth of Yamata no Orochi, by contrast, is something of a revelation. It was the studio's first major visual experiment—unlike the Disney-by-way-of-Asia look of prior movies, it was all sharp edges and angles, more reminiscent of the award-winning UPA short films of the day than either prior Toei films or the TV anime that was just starting to emerge. Little Prince and the Eight-Headed Dragon's hero also stands out; Susanoo is supposed to be tough and assertive, sure, but there's a feeling of inexorability about his hero's journey. We have very little doubt he'll succeed, and the same thing happens with Horus.
Takahata may have gotten his start as a film director with Horus’s bizarre mythological setting, but he's also said he doesn't much care for the fantasy genre. I'd kinda like to know what he meant by that; it's obvious that he's avoiding epic western fantasy, but many of his films at least have a few fantastic elements. By and large, though, he's stuck to his guns – except for helping out by directing some episodes of Future Boy Conan, Takahata's never had a hand in science fiction. How many anime creators can you say that about? The only title that comes to mind is Panda Go Panda. That stuff is definitely sci-fi. We don't have talking pandas yet, but they're working on it, trust me.
After his turbulent experiences as a film director, Isao Takahata would spend a good chunk of the 1970s directing TV shows. Perhaps his signature TV series is Anne of Green Gables, a pretty faithful adaptation of Lucy Maud Montgomery's classic book. I wish I could speak more expansively about this title, but the fact that it isn't available officially in English is vexing, particularly considering that the source material is in English. I took in a number of episodes back in college, and the show's sterling reputation is well-earned. It's not that Anne of Green Gables is really extraordinary, it's just that it has no faults, no “filler” episodes, and still looks pretty incredible. It leaves me with precisely the same feeling as getting lost in a really good book. The episodes do not speed up, but when I watch it, I feel as though I'm watching them faster and faster.
While he was beavering away on Anne of Green Gables, Takahata was also merrily taking six years to create a feature film. In conjunction with Oh! Production, 1982 saw the release of Gauche the Cellist, a neat 63-minute feature based on a story by Kenji Miyazawa, whose tales so often bring out the best in Japanese animators. (Gauche itself had already been previously adapted for animation twice.) Takahata presents a movie that, at first glance, seems like a pastoral little coming of age tale about a struggling cellist. “Your playing lacks passion,” comments Gauche's stern conductor, “or perhaps something more fundamental.” Gauche doggedly practices away at home until he's interrupted—by a smiling housecat, bringing him a gift of tomatoes.
“Try something easier, like Träumerei,” suggests the kitty. The movie's narrative arc continues with Gauche searching for inspiration with the aid of a variety of woodland creatures. Is he crazy, or is he just figuring out something important about playing music? Another great moment features Gauche and his small orchestra grimly accompanying a silent cartoon in a theater full of raucous little kids, blasting through Offenbach's can-can classic “The Infernal Galop” while the theatre manager haplessly chases a rat around with a broom. Gauche is a little treasure, a fine film often overlooked thanks to the low profile of its studio.
Takahata had a number of big moments in the 80s, like helping launch Ghibli and producing its first Miyazaki-helmed works. Just prior to that, he directed a rad little film called Chie the Brat, which Justin wrote about in his final Pile of Shame. My favorite thing about the movie that he didn't mention? Chie's body language, particularly her face during parts of the film when the viewer is meant to be looking elsewhere. The same period yielded the workmanlike Taro the Dragon Boy, produced by Toei and helmed by film director Kirio Urayama. I bring Taro up for one reason: it's based on an idea by Takahata. But there's a mystique to Takahata, isn't there? Even though he wasn't involved in the production of Taro the Dragon Boy, its shimmering visuals and colorful mythological monsters make it seem a bit like a Takahata film. But enough about his older works; I'm here to talk about The Tale of Princess Kaguya.
On the surface, The Tale of Princess Kaguya appears just as unassuming as many of Takahata's films. It's done in a soft, watercolor style that evokes memories of his fine and frequently overlooked My Neighbors the Yamadas, but it looks a bit more like a standard Ghibli film, thanks to the steady hand of character designer Osamu Tanabe. The film's head animator, Kenichi Konishi, has been a bit more responsible for Ghibli's ‘house style’ lately, but Tanabe's work here manages to be both evocative of the studio and quite distinct.
The substance of Princess Kaguya also seems relatively straightforward. Ostensibly a faithful adaptation of The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, the movie still opens with that iconic scene of the cutter slicing open a stalk to reveal a tiny princess inside, a scene that Takahata had already visited in My Neighbors the Yamadas. There are a few changes, though. The bulk of the narrative is moved from the forest to old Edo, and an epilogue concerning the fate of Kaguya's foster parents is left out.
Taking a story like Princess Kaguya’s and turning it into something for modern audiences is no mean feat—the original tale dates back to the 10th century, and is considered by many to be the oldest extant written story in Japan. Narratively, there's a lot that's familiar here: the bamboo cutter and his wife want what's best for their child, but fail to consider just what makes the almost unnaturally beautiful Kaguya so vivacious and magnetic. A heavenly dowry is found, and the cash is used to move Kaguya to the capital, where she can be introduced as royalty and wooed by only the finest prospective husbands. But while she's impressed by the capital, she's not happy—the pomp and circumstance of high society life annoys her, and when five princes and ministers arrive to compete for her hand, she gives them a series of impossible tasks to throw them off the trail. With even the Emperor intrigued, Kaguya seems to be the most desired maiden in Japan. It can't last.
Kaguya isn't of this earth, revealed in a piece of story background that brings Sailor Moon to mind. Here's where Isao Takahata's artistry comes into full bloom: we are told that Kaguya's tale is tragic. Even the film's Japanese tagline mentions her crime and punishment. But I didn't find this film to be sad. Takahata's take on the classic story isn't about tragedy but about progression; Kaguya's fate isn't exactly set in stone, but her origins mean that, like it or not, she can't stick around in this world. The end of her earthly happiness was inevitable. it started growing the second the woodsman plucked her out of the bamboo.
Takahata also displays his gift for comedy in this movie. My favorite part of the film is Kaguya's rocky introduction to the great and the good of Edo. The woodcutter hires an elegant lady-in-waiting to teach Kaguya manners, but she isn't up to the task. The woodcutter himself is consumed with the desire to fit in, and to give Kaguya a debut worthy of the finest princess. But he's still a country bumpkin. The various players react with amusing horror to Kaguya's constant fumbles, with only her sponsor, the hilarious-looking Inbe no Akita (picture a handsome old guy's craggy, smiling face; now make it HUGE) in on the joke.
Like My Neighbors the Yamadas, like Grave of the Fireflies and Only Yesterday and Chie the Brat and Gauche the Cellist, The Tale of Princess Kaguya reveals yet another facet of the director Isao Takahata. So often, we seem to get the same Miyazaki—a man of high adventure and fun fantasy, who populates his stories with strong, vivacious heroines, fantastic airplanes, and strong pro-nature themes. But there are many different Takahatas, aren't there? Sometimes we get the noisy, homey sitcom Takahata. Sometimes the director puts on his literary classics hat and delivers an enduring, tantalizing adaptation of classic literature. Sometimes, as is the case with Kaguya, we get a film that stands apart from his earlier oeuvre. I think that moviegoers invariably emerge from seeing Takahata films a little wiser.
After any Studio Ghibli film, the question comes up: could this be the one to win an Oscar? Only Miyazaki's Spirited Away has done so. Last year's release of Miyazaki's swan song The Wind Rises seemed like it had a respectable chance, until the entire world temporarily turned into Disney's Frozen, and that deserving movie took home the statue instead. Still, Miyazaki got a lifetime award, plus a plethora of other awards and nominations. I don't think The Tale of Princess Kaguya will win the Oscar - the high profile of the Lego Movie should carry it to glory instead. (The fact that the Lego Movie is actually quite good really helps, too.) But it'll get noticed—heck, a dozen film critics’ circles have already lavished honors on it-- and that's something that Takahata's been less apt to do than his famed partner.
After all, Hayao Miyazaki's films are tracked obsessively by animation lovers all over the world, but you've got to do some digging to get to Isao Takahata's finest works, since his earlier projects are scattered amongst different studios and publishers. In Japan, at least, the task is getting simplified this month. A compendium of Takahata's film works, featuring Horus, Panda Go Panda, Chie, Gauche the Cellist, Grave of the Fireflies, a 1989 movie edit of Anne of Green Gables, Only Yesterday, Pom Poko, Yamadas, Kaguya, and an episode of Ken the Wolf Boy, is coming out on blu-ray. Stuff like this fascinates me; how did Ghibli get Toei, TMS, and Nippon Animation to come aboard their box set release? In any case, the $500 price tag means that it's up to us to save up together and get the Japanese set. Don't worry, you can keep it at your place on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, I'll have custody of it on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, and we can give it to Milhouse on Sundays and Mondays. One final thought on what makes Isao Takahata so interesting: looking back on his series of great films leaves me with questions, not answers. His films turn out great, but why do they take years? The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness shows Miyazaki coming in every day, toiling away in solitude, but we never get a good look at what Takahata's desk looks like. Maybe that's his secret; he just doesn't want us to think about him, but about his animation. His great movies speak for themselves; they have always given us an invitation to marvel.
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