TOKYO | Isao Takahata, co-founder of the prestigious Japanese animator Studio Ghibli that stuck to a hand-drawn “manga” look in the face of digital filmmaking, has died. He was 82.
Takahata started Ghibli with Oscar-winning animator Hayao Miyazaki in 1985, hoping to create Japan’s Disney, and helped shape the style and voice of what became one of the world’s most respected animation studios as well as this nation’s prized cultural export.
He directed “Grave of the Fireflies,” a tragic tale about wartime childhood, and produced some of the studio’s films, including Miyazaki’s 1984 “Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind,” which tells the horror of environmental disaster through a story about a princess.
Takahata died Thursday of lung cancer at a Tokyo hospital, according to a studio statement Friday.
He was fully aware how the floating sumie-brush sketches of faint pastel in his works stood as a stylistic challenge to Hollywood’s computer-graphics cartoons.
In a 2015 interview with The Associated Press, Takahata talked about how Edo-era woodblock-print artists like Hokusai had the understanding of Western-style perspective and the use of light, but they purposely chose to depict reality with lines, and in a flat way, with minimal shading.
That, he said, was at the heart of Japanese manga, or comics.
“It is about the essence that’s behind the drawing,” he said at Ghibli’s picturesque office in suburban Tokyo. “We want to express reality without an overly realistic depiction, and that’s about appealing to the human imagination.”
His 1982 rendition of “Gauche the Cellist,”a classic by early 20th century poet-writer Kenji Miyazawa, was inspired by oil paintings. When he spoke of computer graphics or other digital techniques like 3D, he practically said the terms with a scoff.
He said Ghibli strove to fuse Japanese and Western filmmaking styles.
In the interview, Takahata confessed to an almost love-hate relationship with Miyazaki because their works were so different. He said he tries not to talk about Miyazaki’s works because he would have to be honest, and then he would end up getting critical, and he didn’t want conflict with an artist he so respected.
His last film, “The Tale of The Princess Kaguya,” based on a Japanese folktale, was nominated for a 2015 Oscar for best animation feature, although it did not win.
He is also known for the 1970s Japanese TV series “Heidi, Girl of the Alps,” based on the book by Swiss author Johanna Spyri.
A native of Mie Prefecture, Takahata was a graduate of the University of Tokyo and initially worked at Toei, one of Japan’s major film and animation studios.
Although he did not win an Oscar, Takahata won many other awards, including those from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and the Lorcano International Film Festival.
There was an outpouring of international mourning.
Pixar’s Lee Unkrich, director of “Toy Story 3,” said Takahata influenced Michael Arndt’s script for “Little Miss Sunshine,” a road trip comedy about a family of losers trying to survive.
“‘Grave of the Fireflies’ is an amazing, emotional film. And ‘My Neighbors the Yamadas’ is incredibly charming,” Unkrich said in a tweet from his verified account.
“My Neighbors the Yamadas” chronicled the daily vignettes of the Yamada family, in a humorous way, evoking a comic-strip style.
Strong female characters were a Takahata trademark.
Princess Kaguya, in his adaptation, is a lively free-spirited young woman who spurns the advances of boorish samurai men, choosing to hold her own.
The ending, which is part of the original fairy tale, has her taking off in an extraterrestrial canopy to the moon, still single, as the elderly couple, her doting earthling adoptive parents, watch in sorrow and horror.
Takahata was planning to do a film about exploited girls, forced to work as nannies with infants strapped on their backs. Most lullabies in Japan were not for parents singing babies to sleep, but for such young women, crying out about their suffering, Takahata had said.
Although his films were often fantasies, he was a realist, insisting, for instance, on genuine musical instruments being played that matched what was depicted on the screen. He was gentle but also a perfectionist, grilling his voice actors till the tone and character interpretations were just right.
All his stories, he said, held the message of urging everyone to live life to their fullest, to be all they can be, not bogged down by petty concerns like money and prestige.
“This earth is a good place, not because there is eternity,” he said.
“All must come to an end in death. But in a cycle, repeated over and over, there will always be those who come after us.”
Toshio Suzuki, a producer at Studio Ghibli, said Miyazaki and he were discussing a big farewell ceremony for Takahata for May 15, organized by the studio. Details were still undecided.
“There was so much more he wanted to do, it must be heartbreaking,” Suzuki said.
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