Anime veteran leaves behind a legacy of more than 50 years of landmark anime including Ghibli’s Grave of the Fireflies, Pom Poko, and The Tale of the Princess Kaguya.

Most people would say that 82 years is not a tremendously short life. And yet, in a way, it feels like the time to say good-bye to anime director and Studio Ghibli co-founder Isao Takahata has come far too soon.

The 82-year-old Takahata passed away on April 5 at a hospital in Tokyo, succumbing to lung cancer after being plagued by heart and poor health conditions since last summer which had caused him to be hospitalized multiple times. An unnamed personal acquaintance was quoted as saying that Takahata looked startlingly thin when they last saw him in November. “He’d always given the impression of an inquisitive child with glimmering eyes, but [in November] he looked so tired that he seemed like a completely different person.”

Entering the anime industry as an employee of Toei Doga (the precursor to Toei Animation), Takahata would go on to have a tremendously long and successful career. A few years after he started at Toei, he met a new recruit named Hayao Miyazaki, and the two would work together on a number of projects after both left the company in 1971.

▼ The Takahata-directed Grave of the Fireflies

Takahata’s breakout work, and his theatrical directorial debut, was 1968’s Horus: Prince of the Sun, an epic fantasy on which Miyazaki served as key animator. During the 1970s, Takahata directed landmark anime TV series Heidi, Girl of the Alps and Anne of Green Gables, as well as a number of episodes of Lupin III. All became, and have remained, cultural icons in Japan even outside of the anime fan community, and once again, Miyazaki was also involved with each.

Realizing by this point that the two of them had a real knack for making anime, Takahata and Miyazaki, along with producer Toshio Suzuki, founded Studio Ghibli in 1985. In the years since, Miyazaki has gone on to be synonymous with the Ghibli name in the minds of many moviegoers, but arguably the studio’s first film to earn substantial international respect was the Takahata-directed Grave of the Fireflies (originally released in Japan in 1988).

A tragic tale of two orphans struggling, and eventually failing, to survive in Japan immediately following the end of World War II, Grave of the Fireflies, although fictional, dealt with real world events, and in an unflinching manner. That gave it an immediate sense of importance and relevance, and being a Japanese-made movie about Japan provided the cachet of being a window into a foreign society, and this mix of cultural, artistic, and even educational weight. All that resulted in solemn recommendations from mainstream English-language film critics as soon as subtitled or dubbed versions became available, even as Miyazaki’s Totoro and Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind struggled to find acceptance overseas beyond small circles of hardcore anime fans until the late 1990s.

▼ Takahata’s Only Yesterday

In addition to Grave of the Fireflies, Takahata directed Ghibli’s Only Yesterday, Pom Poko, My Neighbors the Yamadas, and, his final film, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, which was released in 2013. Though his films contained such fanciful elements as shapeshifting tanuki swinging their enlarged testicles as weapons and magical moon princesses, Takahata’s works are introspective and tender in comparison to Miyazaki’s bolder grand adventures, showing off Ghibli’s trademark talent in a quietly different way.

Despite his immensely impressive professional resume, Takahata spent much of his career getting little to no attention abroad. His 1970s TV work largely predates international appreciation of anime’s artistic qualities, and when Studio Ghibli did become a readily recognized name among non-anime-focused critics in the early 2000s, the primary focus was always on Miyazaki’s films, such as Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle, and Ponyo. It was really only after new fans drawn in by those started looking into the older anime of not only Ghibli, but also the studio’s key personnel, that English-language critics really started to sing Takahata’s praises in chorus.

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya

In a way, though, that almost seems appropriate. Takahata was borderline infamous for taking his time on projects (Miyazaki once vocally speculated that his Ghibli comrade must be “descended from sloths”), and while he developed a distinct, inimitable style, he was never the sort to draw attention to himself over the anime he created. So even if he’s no longer with us, his works, and his legacy, are still patiently waiting for anyone with a love of animation to experience.

Sources: Yahoo! Japan News/Sanspo via Jin, NHK News Web
Top image: YouTube/Madman