Brow Beat

Isao Takahata, Dead at 82, Was Studio Ghibli’s Underappreciated Master

Isao Takahata in front of a collage of Studio Ghibli films.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Jeff Vespa/WireImage; Studio Ghibli.

Isao Takahata was a visionary, but he wasn’t a brand. The best films of his long career, which include 1988’s Grave of the Fireflies and 2013’s The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, are every bit the equal of his Studio Ghibli co-founder and friendly rival Hayao Miyazaki’s masterworks. But where Miyazaki circled around the same set of obsessions—flight, ecological catastrophe, childhood—Takahata’s films were each singular, so visually and thematically distinct they might have been created by a different person.

Takahata, who died of lung cancer Thursday of the age of 82, created at a leisurely pace, completing just five animated features during his more than 30 years at Studio Ghibli. In Ghibli’s offices, he was known as “Paku-san,” or “Mr. Munch,” for his habit of ambling around the offices with a snack in hand. But taking his time allowed Takahata to start each film from scratch—and the fact that, unlike most animation directors, he rarely drew meant that they all had a distinct look. My Neighbors the Yamadas, inspired by a Japanese comic strip, had a spare, squiggly feel, while Princess Kaguya, drawn from folk tales, looked like watercolor paintings come to life.

Takahata’s most acclaimed film is also his hardest to watch. Grave of the Fireflies is based on a short story by Akiyuki Nosaka, but the story of a Japanese teenager shepherding his younger sister through the aftermath of a 1945 U.S. bombing was heavily inspired by Takahata’s own childhood memories. His hometown of Okayama was bombed by the U.S., and 9-year-old Takahata wandered the streets in his pajamas, carving a path through piles of corpses. The movie opens with its protagonist dying of starvation and gets bleaker from there, and it serves as a reminder that in addition to creating flights of fancy, animation can present truths that would be intolerable to face when rendered in a more realistic style.

Takahata also directed Pom Poko, whose fantastical subject and ecological themes bring it closest to Miyazaki’s work, except instead of My Neighbor Totoro’s gentle forest spirit, its central figures are tanuki, shape-shifting “raccoon dogs” with enormous testicles—finessed by the English-language dub as “pouches”—who set out to sabotage an encroaching real-estate development. 1991’s Only Yesterday is a heart-tugging melodrama about a young Tokyo woman’s return to her native small town, driven by memories of her past that are not always pleasant, and it was a huge box-office hit in Japan. But Disney, which held the U.S. rights to most of Ghibli’s catalog for decades, had no interest in marketing animated films that couldn’t be aimed at children, so it wasn’t until GKids acquired the rights and commissioned a new dub track that it was released in 2016.

Like all of Ghibli’s movies, Takahata’s are not available for streaming, but Pom Poko and Grave of the Fireflies will screen in theaters in June and August as part of the ongoing Ghibli Fest series. (They’re also available on Blu-ray and DVD.) They’re two of the greatest movies by an underappreciated master, and well worth making summer plans around.

Sam Adams is a Slate senior editor and the editor of Slate’s culture blog, Brow Beat.