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In shadows of Miyazaki

Studio Ghibli, which had set itself the goal of becoming the Japanese Disney upon its founding, won the Academy Award for Best Animated Film in 2002. Spirited Away came out on top against Disney, which was nominated thrice with Ice Age, Lilo & Stitch and Treasure Planet. The award was handed over to the director and co-founder of the studio, Hayao Miyazaki.

Written by


Sep 9, 2022

© Studio Ghibli

By this time at the latest, his name had become synonymous with the world’s best-known anime studio. Prior to this, he had already proven that he could set entirely new standards with My Neighbour Totoro, Porco Rosso and Princess Mononoke. After the release, Miyazaki announced his retirement in 1997 to make way for younger talents. The main reason, however, may have been the sudden death of collaborator Yoshifumi Kondos, who died due to an aneurysm, possibly caused by overwork. A few years later, Miyazaki nevertheless returned and ended up working on Spirited Away.

After classics like Akira and Ghost in the Shell, animated films definitely became intriguing for adult audiences worldwide

In 2013, Miyazaki announced his departure from the film world with As the Wind Rises, only to announce three years later that he was already working on his 11th film for the studio, and the 23rd Ghibli film in total.

So, who are the people responsible for the other 12 Ghibli productions?

Grave of the Fireflies © Studio Ghibli

Isao Paku Takahata

One of them was the studio’s co-founder and close friend of Miyazaki, Isao Tahahata, whose best-known work here in might be the anime series Heidi, which Miyazaki also worked on and was made around 10 years before the studio was founded. With films like Grave of the Fireflies, Only Yesterday and My Neighbours the Yamadas, he made a reputation of his own. Works that clearly differed from Miyazaki’s. Where Miyazaki dazzled with endless imaginative fantasy, Takahata was keener and more immediately attached to the reality of human relationships.

Grave of the Fireflies

Francois Truffaut once said that there can’t be an anti-war film as the depiction of war itself provides a thrilling spectacle, which turns every anti-war film into a war film as well. Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies proves the opposite by looking at the impact of the Second World War from the point of view of two children without having to show the act of war itself. From the viewpoint of the two siblings, the film shows the horrors of war in their imminent and personal scale as effectively as it had previously only been seen in Elem Klimow’s Come and See.

The subtle alignment of brief moments of stillness and the ordinary is reminiscent of works by Mikio Naruse, in which misfortune also inevitably resonates, making the moments of brief happiness seem all the more fragile. Takahata created one of the most extraordinary films that has undoubtedly earned the designation of being an anti-war film.

My Neighbours the Yamadas

In My Neighbours the Yamadas, Takahata marked a novelty for Ghibli films, both in terms of narrative and visual style. Inspired by watercolour, it was the first time that the process was done entirely digitally, rather than in the hand-drawn paint-on-cel technique.

Through several short anecdotes, the film approaches the everyday life of an ordinary Japanese family. Full of humour and charm, it explores the beauty of togetherness and the nature of family relationships. Narrated from children’s eyes, it reminds of another great work of Japanese cinema – Good Morning by Yasujiro Ozu. Like Ozu, Takahata takes social conventions and turns them ad absurdum through the childish experience of simple-mindedness. In this way, Takahata reveals his precise gift for observing everyday situations in mundane scenes from life, while seamlessly blending them with daydream-like images taken from Japanese fables, achieving a universal view of human relationships with irresistible gentleness. My personal favourite Ghibli film.

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya © Studio Ghibli

Isao Takahata, who co-founded Studio Ghibli together with Hayao Miyazaki, has died at age 82


In 2013, with The Legend of Princess Kaguya, Takahata realised a film for which he had long had initial ideas in 1960, well before Ghibli was made. The documents exhibited at the National Museum of Modern Art in Tokyo indicate that at that time he intended to realise an abstract style inspired by traditional painting techniques based on picture scrolls. Decades later, this film was to be realised in exactly the intended way.

Takahata passed away five years later, leaving behind a final masterpiece in which Ghibli’s essence unfolds with sheer creativity and beauty.

The shadow above Ghibli

Overshadowing all the commercial and artistic success, however, was Takahata’s inhumane behaviour towards his staff, as reported by Anime News Network. Studio Ghibli’s co-founder and long-time producer Toshio Suzuki comments in The Ghibli Textbook 19 – Princess Kaguya (Ghibli no Kyokasho 19 Kaguya-hime no Monogatari) included interview that Takahata was a terrifically difficult character within the studio. Work would come before everything else for him.

His high demands on his employees indirectly caused the death of the aforementioned character designer and animation director Yoshifumi Kondo. It was after his completed directing work on Whisper of the Heart that Suzuki visited Kondō, who told him that Takahata had driven him to the brink of death while working for him and that he began to tremble at the mere thought of his name.

It is commonly reported that working conditions in the Japanese animation industry are exploitative and atrocious. Unfortunately, Ghibli seems to be no exception. This lack of appreciation and disrespectful treatment may also have caused emerging talent to leave Ghibli, raising a big question mark surrounding Miyazaki's and Takahata’s artistic legacy.

The Outsider

© Universum Film Home Entertainment

Apart from Takahata, the other directors were Miyazaki’s son Goro (The Chronicles of Earthsea), Yoshifumi Kondo (Voice of the Heart), Hiroyuki Morita (The Kingdom of Cats) and Hiromasa Yonebayashi (Memories of Marnie). Yet I would like to single out the very first film not directed by Miyazaki or Takahata – Ocean Waves by Tomomi Mochizuki from 1993. This is, at the same time, the most unusual film for the studio’s filmography. This television production follows the lives of three teenagers as they experience friendship and love in a Japanese port city. There is nothing special about the story, as it is one about adolescent situations that seems familiar to everyone. It is the sensitivity, the sentiment and the naturally way the lives of the youths are captured that makes Ocean Waves so poignant. From this emerges a beauty relative to the passing of time and the accompanying bittersweet nostalgia of ordinary lives of ordinary people.

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