Among Fireflies: Remembering Isao Takahata

April 16, 2018


Studio Ghibli is the only animation studio from Japan to have won an Academy Award, for “Spirited Away” (2001). Ghibli is best known for the acclaimed works of Hayao Miyazaki, the director of “Spirited Away” and many other masterpieces. Many don’t know that another outstanding figure was at the Studio, making amazing films in his own right, co-founder Isao Takahata. He has passed away from lung cancer at the age of 82.


As of now, Miyazaki has made 11 films with a 12th on the way. Takahata, in a career reaching all the way back to the 1960s, made six. His first film, “The Great Adventure of Horus,” “Prince of the Sun” (1968), is considered a groundbreaking anime feature for dealing with more mature themes than its contemporaries.


His most well-known work would come twenty years later in “Grave of the Fireflies” (1988), based on Akiyuki Nosaka’s semi-autobiographical novel about surviving in Japan near and after the end of World War 2. “Grave of the Fireflies” is widely acclaimed as one of the best yet most harrowingly tragic films ever made, animated or otherwise.


Roger Ebert placed it in his “Great Movies” list. It tells the tale of a brother and his young sister trying to make it through a ruined Japan and soon come to the realization they both won’t. It is a film that will make you cry and as an American viewer, inspire guilt despite the justification we had to fight Japan in WW2. On an emotional though not narrative level, it’s the Japanese “Schindler’s List.”


Sal Ciano, who works at the WPB branch of Past, Present and Future Comics, recalls seeing “Grave of the Fireflies” when first attending PBA in the early 2000s, though it wasn’t for a film class.


“I remember it being very moving and a very affecting piece of animation. Very sad.”, Ciano recalls.


The four films Takahata would direct following “Fireflies” would be “Only Yesterday” (1991), “Pom Poko” (1994), “My Neighbors the Yamadas” (1999) and “The Tale of the Princess Kaguya” (2013), the last of which was nominated at the 87th Academy Awards for Best Animated Feature. It lost to “Big Hero 6.”


Ann-Yi Wang, who works at Digital Media Services, recalls her own experience in watching Takahata’s features.


“I watched a good chunk of his films growing up as I watched all of Studio Ghibli’s films. A good portion of them had an impact on me as a child. The environmental issues that ‘Pom Poko’ touches on and just the emotional train-wreck that is ‘Grave of the Fireflies.’ Train-wreck that in it was done too well. It doesn’t contradict what we learned in history class but it just gives another perspective rather than just good guys versus bad guys thing. It’s about the people in Japan that suffered.”


“Why do Fireflies have to die so soon?” said Setsuko, the young sister in “Grave of the Fireflies.” It’s meaning is dreadfully clear in the context of the tragedy at the heart of the film, relating to Japanese youths dying miserably well before their time. Isao Takahata was ten years old at the time the movie is set and he quite likely saw the same horrors as many did at the war’s end.


Unlike the two protagonists of his movie, he lived a long, productive life, one that put a stamp on the animation industry that should never be forgotten or downplayed. Miyazaki may be the most iconic master at Studio Ghibli, but Takahata was a master that shined just as brightly as the titular insects in his masterwork.


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