Painting Life and Memories – Isao Takahata

All images shown are © by Studio Ghibli. We do not own any of the images provided.

Spoilers ahead!

There have been few films that instilled in me a deep sense of loss, longing, and love of family as that of Isao Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies. Nor have I seen another animated film so realistic: the carefree world of youth colliding with the chaotic world of adults. Grave of the Fireflies stands as perhaps Takahata’s most famous masterpiece. The successes of Studio Ghibli, alongside Hayao Miyazaki, would allow Takahata to tell more breathtaking stories. Takahata would go on to voice messages about the importance of life and memories throughout all of his works.

Takahata lived an extraordinary animation/film career. He directed such Ghibli classics as Only Yesterday, Pom Poko, My Neighbors the Yamadas, and The Tale of Princess Kaguya. Each of his films differs in energy and style. Yet, there always seems to be the underlying theme of the struggles of life. Although slow in his filmmaking, Takahata was passionate about exploring the depths of character development.

Director Isao Takahata (1935 – 2018).

In Only Yesterday, Grave of the Fireflies, and Pom Poko, memories and illusions play a role in showing what had been lives worth remembering, and actions worth regretting. How many of us have done things in the past that still stay with us today? I tend to reflect on my past often, and Takahata’s storytelling made me think more. My personal favorite of Takahata’s films, Only Yesterday is the story of a character named Taeko. She is a woman in her late twenties who comes to terms with the shifting nature of childhood and adulthood, and the dreams she left behind.

During the story, Taeko took a mature position on the subject of childhood and adulthood when she expressed: “When my sisters recall the good old days it’s mainly about fashions or pop stars. For them, 1966 was the high point of their youth. But for me, it was just fifth grade.” In other words, Taeko did not see herself as having lived a childhood like those around her. Throughout the film, Taeko’s younger self saw opportunities for a bright future passed up. Choices were pre-determined by those closest to her, especially her father. Those regrets stayed with her to her present self, deeply affecting her decision to live in the countryside.

Taeko encounters a crush from her past. Notice the distinct color difference between the characters and the background.

Memories and illusions show how the characters’ pasts impacted the present. Even for Grave of the Fireflies and Pom Poko, illusions seemingly walked amongst the physical world. We saw how characters, such as the raccoon dogs in Pom Poko, wished that their lives would return to normal. The raccoons used magic to re-create their homes lost in construction, and briefly experienced that which they longed. The ghosts of Seita and Setsuko in Grave of the Fireflies also relived the tragedy of their lives through the end of WWII. Seita’s ghost visited his own deceased body at the start of the film and went on to rejoin his sister. In the end, the two sat together against the modernity of Japan as forgotten memories.

My Neighbors the Yamadas is about the day-to-day lives of a family we can, in some ways, reflect on with moments from our own families. From losing Nonoko in the mall and going on a wild chase, to the antics of dance-fighting over the television, certain things made this family a unique clan. In their humorous ways, the Yamadas managed to speak a message that crossed from the lines of animation: “Life, as they say, has its ups and downs. At times, the waves may taunt you, tossing you in their swells. But take heart. It’s hard to stick with it and make it on your own. But even a couple of losers can survive most things if they’re together.”

The final moments we see of Setsuko.

The Tale of Princess Kaguya also deals heavily with the regrets of how family life should have been. People exploited Kaguya’s life to achieve wealth, and ultimately her adoptive mother and father lost her to the spirits of the moon. Throughout the film, Kaguya expressed sadness about simply wanting to live her life in peace. She enjoyed the beautiful landscapes, growing up with her friends, and making every day an adventure. Kaguya’s personal choices did not matter to her parents. Their decisions for Kaguya had consequences that traded wealth for the most treasured person in their lives.

There is a great purpose in the visually appealing nature of Takahata’s films. The scenes, characters, and settings are carefully crafted to elicit the audience’s reactions. Takahata’s films relish in the details we perhaps miss in our own daily lives. His films do this by design. Hayao Miyazaki takes us to fantastical magic worlds, but Isao Takahata’s own “magic” lies elsewhere: in the real world. A real-world where life continually paints memories.

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