Isao Takahata will forever live in the shadow of Hayao Miyazaki, though die-hard animation fans will more than likely tell you that Takahata is the better director of the two. And they are right. While I wouldn't want to discredit the work of Miyazaki, Takahata made a few masterpieces that rise far above the works of his former pupil. He has made a bigger impact on people's views of Japanese animation than any of Miyazaki's films could ever dream to do.
Back in 1969, Miyazaki and Takahata teamed up for Takahata's feature film début. Taiyou no Ouji Horusu no Daibouken (Prince of the Sun: The Great Adventure of Horus) is a cute little adventure, not unlike the outline of your average J-RPG. The animation is impressive for its time and it's a fun diversion, but it isn't exactly masterpiece material. Over the course of the next 15 years (and in between his TV work) Takahata managed to direct three other feature films. Panda Kopanda is cuteness overload directed at younger children, Jarinko Chie is a little harsher and arguably Takahata's worst film, while Sero Hiki no Goshu (Goshu the Cellist) shows the first signs of Takahata's true skills.
Right before releasing his big breakthrough film Takahata went on to direct a massive documentary on the Yanagawa canals. Yanagawa Horiwari Monogatari is an in-depth look at all things related to these canals, though it must be said that the subject is a little dry (pun intended) and 167 minutes is rather long for a documentary that talks about nothing else than waterways. Unless you're really really interested in them of course, then it's a treasure trove of information.
One year later Takahata would release his first film under the Ghibli flag. Released back to back with Tonari no Totoro to soften the blow, Hotaru no Haka (Grave of the Fireflies) is a deeply moving and strangely critical story of a young boy who loses his parents during wartime and ends up raising his younger sister all by himself. A film that opened the eyes of film critics around the world, most notably Roger Ebert who vehemently promoted the film at a time that nobody even considered Japanese animation to be a force to be reckoned with.
Hotaru na Haka was a tough act to follow up, but Takahata managed wonderfully when he made Omohide Poro Poro (Only Yesterday). Equally mature, but dreamier and a lot softer in nature. It's the ideal couch-vacation combined with a sweet yet respectful love story. In comparison, Pom Poko (his next film) felt more like an eco-themed filler project. Not a bad film by all means, but not up to the standards of Takahata's previous Ghibli projects.
Right before the turn of the millennium Takahata went on to direct Hohokekyo Tonari no Yamada-kun, the first fully-computerized Japanese animation feature. Based on a 4-panel comic, it's not a typical plot-driven film, rather a collection of vignettes held together by a selection of Basho quotes. The hand-painted look might sounds like an odd option for a CG film, but the result is nothing less than stunning. To me, Yamada-kun remains Takahata's best film to date.
It's only a week ago that I watched Takahata's latest (and possibly final) film, Kaguyahime no Monogatari (The Tale of Princess Kaguya). Based on Japan's oldest narrative, it tells the story of a princess born from a bamboo sprout. While visually amazing, there are some pacing issues that keep it from becoming the masterpiece that's hidden away in its 137 minute running time. It's still a great film, but at the same time it's also a red flag that hints at the fact that Takahata's career as a director is nearing its end.
Takahata has never been happy with the status quo. He pushed the boundaries of Japanese animation time and time again and transcended the niche that Japanese animation was. There's no other director like him, animation and live action alike. He made a few absolute masterpieces and rose to heights Miyazaki would never dream of reaching. A wonderful man and a superb director that deserves all the praise he can get.
Best film: Hohokekyo Tonari no Yamada-kun (My Neighbors The Yamadas) (5.0*)
Worst film: Jarinko Chie (Chie the Brat) (2.5*)
Reviewed film(s): Omohide Poro Poro - Hohokekyo Tonari no Yamada-kun - Hotaru no Haka - Kaguyahime no Monogatari
Average rating: 3.70 (out of 5)