Studio Ghibli founder Isao Takahata has been an integral part of the studio’s success story, and has directed such classics as Grave Of The Fireflies and Pom Poko.
Back in 2015, we spoke to him about his long journey bringing The Tale Of Princess Kaguya to the screen and his favoured style of animation.
What made you adapt this particular story?
The original is of course a very well known Japanese story, and I had an idea over 50 years ago that it would be interesting if it were treated in this way. It wasn’t as if I thought I would want to work on it; it’s just that I thought somebody else should make a film out of it. I’ve never really wanted to make a film of this story! I was only thinking of the Japanese audience, and I realised it would be wonderful if I could present it so that the Japanese audience would think, ‘Oh my, is this the kind of story it really was?’ And also, if I can be presumptuous, ‘Can it be this interesting?’ That’s what I was aiming for.
What is significant about Kaguya’s interest in nature?
I don’t think it’s any particular interest in nature, but the fact that she grew up surrounded by nature is very significant, and really that’s what we have – the world around us is full of nature. Even in the West, poetry is full of nature – British poems are full of nature – or love and human feelings; those are the two main subjects of poems. We’re dealing with the fundamentals of human beings.
In many ways, the film is about a young girl forced to grow up very quickly, and strong, vibrant young girls have always been an important part of your work, particularly in Only Yesterday and your TV series, Heidi of the Alps. What makes youth so appealing to you as a subject?
For over a century, there have been on-going changes in the relations between men and women and in the social standing of women. I have sought to refrain from projecting onto the young girls who are my main characters any “wishful thinking” from the male point of view about how women should behave. Despite being a man, I love vibrant women not only to fall in love with but also as human beings and as friends. I also like to put myself in a women’s position as much as I can and think about things even though I am a man.
Do you consider yourself a feminist filmmaker?
I may well be a feminist filmmaker. On occasion I half jokingly remark that “I am an ally of women.”
Both Princess Kaguya and your previous film, My Neighbours The Yamadas, are drawn in an imprecise, loose way, which makes them feel freer and more expressionistic than they would if they were animated traditionally. How did you arrive at this style? Do you prefer it to the traditional style of your earlier work?
I certainly prefer this style. I had initially wanted to use this style, but various problems had made it impossible. What made it possible was my meeting up with those who are brilliantly gifted (Character Design and Animating Director Osamu Tanabe and Art Director Kazuo Oga) and advances in computer technology.
Since the Renaissance, Western painting has attempted to give viewers the illusion as if they are seeing people and things as they really exist upon a flat canvas surface. This effort was a singularly uncommon behaviour within the course of world history, and began to be abandoned in the latter nineteenth century in the West. Rather than paintings that declare “I am the real thing” or “I am an abstract expression that has nothing to do with the real thing,” I prefer paintings that say “As you can see, I am not the real thing, but please use me as a means to imagine or remember in a vivid way the real thing that is behind me.” Nowadays the main stream of animation films consists of 3D CD and such techniques that blatantly shout out “I am the real thing.” To counter that trend, I want to make sure that we don’t forget the great power of paintings drawn by lines on paper to stir our imaginations and memories.
The sketch-like feeling of quickly drawing what is occurring right in front of us at the moment is what I learned from Frédéric Back, the animation filmmaker of “Crac!” and “The Man Who Planted Trees.” Mr. Back was the first one to use sketching techniques to “draw and capture on a flat surface” things and people that are real, and he taught us how wonderful this method could be.
There are two major explosions of emotion in the film: one of pure joy, the other of pure sadness, and both times, the style of the animation changes to reflect this. What do you think the animation style adds to the film?
As I mentioned earlier, what is happening here at this moment is being vividly sketched, which to my mind means that the emotions of the scenes are reflected in the drawings. My intent was to have the viewers be there at the moment when the sketches were being drawn, that is, to have the viewers share in the emotions. I believe I was able to accomplish that intention of mine.
In my case, since I have to think of my age, I’m not sure if I have the physical energy or the mental energy to make another feature film, and also whether there is the money that might be invested in a film that I might want to make. Of course, I would have to have an excellent producer who could gather that money, perhaps, for me to be able to make it. In terms of animators, of course there are talented top animators that could work on all the drawings. Even for this project, we hired the majority of animators outside of Studio Ghibli, so I know we can hire people on a project basis. I think all those conditions would have to be met for me to make any film in the future.
Will we see a new generation of animators begin to take the mantle?
Well for example, Disney, at one point, was almost going to wither away, but it had the assets that it had, and it was resurrected, and now it’s a large company. There could be a completely different direction and a completely different force that comes into being, in terms of Japanese animation. Or animation itself might decline. I’m not sure.
Do you find your output influenced by Western animation?
At my age, I don’t know if I can be influenced that much anymore. Of course, in my youth, I really respected and honoured Disney and what he had done, but I always thought it was too different from the way things are in Japan to really take something from that and be able to utilise it. Our starting points were very different, I think. For example, when you make animation in films in English or Japanese language, they’re very different. In Japanese, we can talk just by moving our mouths, without large gestures, and that’s a normal way of talking in Japanese, whereas you look at American or Western animation – and there’s too much action, or the action is too broad to fit into a Japanese context, or to be an influence on us. If we use those kind of large gestures, then people say, ‘That smells like butter,’ meaning, ‘It’s too Westernised.’ It’s a sort of derogatory sense. In that way, even animation is very culturally bound, so I think we need to be careful about influences. For example, my Anne of Green Gables, the television series that is of course based on a Canadian girl – she talks a lot, and of course she would be speaking in English, and using gestures probably, but if I had shown that to a Japanese audience, that would look very strange, so I didn’t use many gestures. It’s been well-received in Japan, and it’s a very popular TV series, but now, when that is shown in the West, dubbed into other languages, then I feel like, ‘Oh, is it really going to work in those other languages?’ – for example in Italy, where people use a lot of gestures to talk. So if it’s dubbed in Italian, and the girl’s just standing there, straight, without any gestures, isn’t that going to seem a little off to them? I worry about the kind of reception that it gets in the West.
The Tale Of Princess Kaguya is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.