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The Films of Hayao Miyazaki & Isao Takahata
By Colin Odell, Michelle Le Blanc
Oldcastle Books Copyright © 2015 Colin Odell and Michelle Le Blanc
All rights reserved.
THE PRE-GHIBLI WORKS OF TAKAHATA ISAO AND MIYAZAKI HAYAO
Studio Ghibli did not form in a vacuum. Both Takahata Isao and Miyazaki Hayao had a number of jobs with different animation companies before they finally formed their own studio. The pair had worked on a large number of productions of various sizes and in many different roles. This section will concentrate on the major television series Miyazaki and Takahata worked on as well as all their theatrical releases as directors prior to the formation of Studio Ghibli.
THE TOEI YEARS
Both Takahata and Miyazaki began their careers working in the factory-like animation studios at Toei Doga. Toei produced TV series as well as feature films and the pair worked on both, their paths crossing on several projects, notably on the series Wolf Boy Ken (1964-5). In general, Takahata's role in the early years at Toei was as assistant director while Miyazaki progressed from in-betweening work through to key animation (including a couple of episodes of the popular series Sally the Witch [1966-8]) and eventually design. The pair's biggest project at Toei, Horusu, Prince of the Sun, was an artistic triumph but a commercial failure. Takahata would not direct another feature for the company and returned to television work. Miyazaki, meanwhile, continued his involvement with animated features, contributing to such films as Puss 'n Boots (1969) and The Flying Ghost Ship (1969), the latter featuring a scene in which a giant robot devastates a city, pre-empting Laputa: Castle in the Sky. Puss 'n Boots is particularly striking in its use of design and perspective, combining comic kawaii (cute) characters and quirky action sequences. With a princess to rescue, a castle with a dungeon full of skulls and bones and a daring rescue, it's chockfull of sequences that anticipate Miyazaki's later The Castle of Cagliostro. As a tie-in to the film Miyazaki also drew a serialised manga version of the tale. Treasure Island (aka Animal Treasure Island, 1971) re-told Robert Louis Stevenson's classic story as a madcap adventure with much of the cast as animals, most notably the pirates of the ship Pork Saute, who are pigs. Even more crazy was Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves (1971), a sequel to the familiar story where Ali Baba's descendant is now an evil tyrant and the 'thieves' are actually the good guys — Al Huck and a bunch of cats and a rat — seeking to topple the King.
Both Miyazaki and Takahata quit Toei to find work elsewhere. An attempt in 1971 to film Pippi Longstocking was put on hold when the author Astrid Lindgren declined to grant rights to the books. Their first major project was on the television series Lupin III (1971), based upon the hilarious but vulgar manga by Monkey Punch, for which they both took directing credits. Although not as racy as the manga, the series was notably bawdier than the film that later became Miyazaki's directorial feature debut and which was taken from the same source material. Miyazaki would also find himself directing two episodes for the second series in 1980. Other small television jobs followed but the public craze for pandas in the 1970s led to the theatrical release of the short film Panda Kopanda, directed by Takahata with story, design and animation by Miyazaki. Further television work followed but the two really hit their stride with Heidi, a Girl of the Alps.
THE NIPPON ANIMATION YEARS
Although it underwent a number of title changes and company re -brandings over the years, Nippon Animation's World Masterpiece Theater was a prodigious production. From 1969, the company aimed to produce annually an animated version of a classic story, which was serialised weekly, with some of the titles running to a full 52 weeks. Miyazaki had previously worked on the series' adaptation of Moomin (1969-70). Heidi, a Girl of the Alps Arupusu no Shojo Haiji, 1974), directed by Takahata and with Miyazaki handling design, was a huge success with its charming characters and attention to detail, particularly in the animation of the animals. Based upon the popular nineteenth-century books by Swiss author Johanna Spyri, Heidi is the tale of an orphaned girl living with her grandfather in the Alps. The use of sweeping scenery, the careful pacing and the vivid animation made the show a hit, and it was syndicated abroad. It was so successful that a feature film was released, edited from episodes of the series.
Both Miyazaki and Takahata worked briefly on A Dog of Flanders (Furandasu no Inu, 1975), based on the classic novel by Maria Louise de la Ramée, but returned to larger-scale productions with From the Apennines to the Andes ( aka 3,000 Ri to Visit Mother, Haha o Tazunete Sanzen-ri, 1976). The hero of the story is Marco, who is living in Italy in the late nineteenth century. His mother works in Argentina to send money to the family, but when the regular letters she sends her son stop arriving, Marco takes it upon himself to get to the root of the problem, leading to an epic journey across continents. Once again Takahata was responsible for directing the series and Miyazaki for design, the result being another success, spawning a belated theatrical release edited from the series in 1980. Various jobs on other World Masterpiece Theater productions followed, including Rascal the Raccoon (1977). The pair's final major work for the series was Anne of Green Gables (Red-haired Anne, Akage no An, 1979) from the book by Canadian writer LM Montgomery. Takahata directed the series and Miyazaki worked on the earlier episodes before leaving Nippon Animation. The exceptional backgrounds and realistic animation mark this as a superior TV series. Anne is an orphan girl who grows up in her adoptive parents' home, Green Gables, and endears herself to them, despite them having wanted a boy. A classic of gentle animation, as well as an accurate adaptation of its source, the series illustrated Takahata's growing interest in the boundaries between childhood and adulthood, which would come to mark much of his later work. Takahata constantly looks at the growing-up process and the way in which children tackle their increasing responsibilities.
Prior to Anne of Green Gables Miyazaki had been working on another project for Nippon Animation, but not as part of World Masterpiece Theater. Conan, the Boy in Future (1978), an adaptation of Alexander Key's The Incredible Tide, was an ambitious and exciting adventure epic that signalled the real genesis of Miyazaki's style as a director. Miyazaki designed, storyboarded and directed nearly all 26 episodes with the help of Takahata (storyboards) and their mentor Otsuka Yasuo (animation director). The importance of this landmark series is difficult to overemphasise. Like many Miyazaki productions it appears to be aimed predominantly at the youth market, yet it contains nuances and perspectives that transcend the bland entertainment often passed off as family viewing.
Set in 2008, young Conan mistakenly believes that he and his grandfather, plunged back on to a dying world when their spaceship fails to escape the atmosphere, are the last of the human race, the other survivors of this terrible crash having since died. The world's oceans have risen and the Earth has been ravaged by a terrible war that has turned it into a devastated wasteland. Out shark-hunting one day, Conan chances upon Lana, a pretty girl whose grandfather could hold the key to mankind's salvation. Unfortunately, the military island Industria, seeking world domination, want the secrets and stop at nothing to get them, kidnapping Lana in hopes of getting to her grandfather. After his grandfather is killed, Conan embarks upon a quest, aided by oddball companions he meets along the way, to save Lana and, potentially, the planet. The links to the natural world, the Nausicaä-like, post-apocalyptic scenario and the similarities in design to Laputa: Castle in the Sky all point to Miyazaki's future work. The series delights in scenes of flying and imaginary vehicles — in episode two, Conan bravely tries to rescue Lana from one such flying machine, using his harpoon to pry it open like a tin can. Themes relating to the resilience and hope of the young, the nature of friendship and community, the stupidity of warring nations and the relationship between people and the environment all feature heavily. The idea of communicating with animals, of psychic links and of peoples isolated from each other all feed into later projects, and there are even underwater scenes that recall works such as Water Spider Monmon (2006) and Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea. Considering the series was destined for television (it was eventually syndicated but never received an English-language release), the quality of the animation, like most of Nippon Animation's output, is staggering. The characters, in particular, are portrayed with great flexibility: realistic in the serious scenes, deliberately stylised during the more comic moments that help temper the otherwise grave journey.
One curious quirk (one that is common for TV anime) is the short comic sequence that marks the advertising break halfway through the episode. Conan, the Boy in Future's repeating motif is a series of body match cards that feature the characters and creatures of the show, so that, for example, Conan might temporarily find himself with a shark's tail instead of legs. Many of the staff who worked on Conan, the Boy in Future would eventually find their way on to the payroll of Studio Ghibli.
After leaving Nippon Animation, Miyazaki was plunged headfirst into his first feature film as a director — the madcap caper Lupin III: Castle of Cagliostro. Takahata, meanwhile, was continuing his own career as a director with the comic Downtown Story and the delightful Goshu the Cellist. Although he had worked on a number of TV projects, Miyazaki's most successful work post-Conan came with six episodes of Sherlock Hound (Meitantei Houmuzu, 1982). This Italian-Japanese co-production re-tells Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories through the conceit of using anthropomorphised dogs in the majority of the roles. The end result has beautifully realised Victorian settings and transport but the action scenes really push the animation to its limits. The anachronistic use of technology (there are early planes as well as steamships and trains that are familiar in design but deliberately not quite based on real vehicles) gives the series a distinct aesthetic that is striking and effective. Although the series suffered legal problems initially, it did eventually get released and proved highly successful.
Both Miyazaki and Takahata spent time working on the expensive and long-delayed film of Little Nemo (1982-89), a huge multinational co-production that really showed what cutting-edge animation could achieve, given the resources. However, both resigned from the troubled production, which had already seen a number of personnel changes and rewrites even before their involvement. Miyazaki returned to directing with his second feature film, the eco-epic Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, and its unprecedented success led to the formation of Studio Ghibli.
Horusu: Prince of the Sun/The Little Norse Prince (Taiyo no Oji: Horusu no Daiboken) (1968)
Directed by: Takahata Isao
Plucky boy warrior Horusu should be enjoying a simple life in his peaceful village but malevolent would-be dictator Grunwald unleashes savage silverwolves to decimate the community and scatter its people. Brave Horusu plucks the Sword of the Sun from the arm of Mogue, a gargantuan rock man, and is given the task of reuniting his oppressed compatriots, a feat he can only achieve by re-forging the blade and becoming the legendary Prince of the Sun. As if the villagers did not have enough to contend with, there's also a giant killer pike that's gobbling up the fishermen, a rat invasion and the prospect of further evil creatures conjured from the depths of Grunwald's black soul. Horusu does have aid in the shape of his companion Koro, an enthusiastic bear-cub. Less clear are the motives of Chiro, a chirpy squirrel, deeply suspicious owl, Toto, and melancholy singer, Hilda, cursed by her own solitude. Horusu must decide whether he should re-forge the sword that could fulfil his destiny.
Horusu: Prince of the Sun was the first feature film directed by Takahata Isao and one that would mark a defining moment in Japanese animation. Despite its mythical setting in Scandinavia (allegedly the setting was changed at the behest of the Toei bosses who were unhappy that the film was to centre on the Ainu people of Japan), the film is a reflection of the political and social struggles of the time. The feeling at Toei just then was that they were treated less as artists and more like factory workers, churning out kids' cartoons rather than films with a deeper purpose. Horusu was produced by Takahata and many from the Toei union team, including Miyazaki and future character designer on Castle of Cagliostro and Conan, the Boy in Future, Otsuka Yasuo, to show that an adventure film could have a social context. What is so striking about Horusu is the way that it mixes a rip-roaring tale of heroism with vivid, openly socialist content. The village is like a cooperative, the villagers happy in their work. The simplistic rural lifestyle is seen as wholesome and would later be reflected in films like Only Yesterday and Pom Poko. In these later films, socialism is a notable but subtle subtext; in Horusu the links are more blatant — Horusu himself often being portrayed from a low angle as a people's hero. Most strikingly, the scenes where the Sword of the Sun is finally forged are produced in a style that recalls Sergei Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov.
At heart Horusu is a mythic adventure, full of epic battles, betrayals and heroic deeds. What is interesting about some of Takahata and Miyazaki's projects is the influence of European stories and myths, albeit told from a distinctly Japanese perspective. In Horusu, aspects of Norse mythology and Arthurian tales of swords in stones, sorcery and destiny are particularly apparent.
Without the budget to sustain a fully animated feature-length animation (that is, animating 24 frames per second of film), Horusu employs a number of techniques to make its tale appear as expansive as possible. Otsuka Yasuo had previously experimented with fully animating key sequences and virtually ignoring the animation on others, making the film stylistically varied and interesting but more frugal. In Horusu, establishing shots of the village or montage sequences, such as the rat invasion, are shown as a series of static pictures, rostrum camera panned to give some sense of movement. At other moments the full animation is breathtaking, the beautiful sketched outlines of Horusu himself intricate and dynamic. The scene of Horusu at sea, as perfectly animated Hokusai-inspired waves crash around him, is a true highpoint for the art form. Despite the intentions of the filmmakers not to produce anything too sanitised or specifically like Disney, Horusu nevertheless contains many elements that are closer to Disney than almost anything else they produced, albeit the Disney that created its most glorious, financially unsuccessful follies. It's difficult to see Grunwald towering over the village without being reminded of 'Night on Bare Mountain' from Fantasia (1940), or the animals from Sleeping Beauty (1959). The abundance of anthropomorphised animals in Horusu, although often cute, never stray into the territory of being annoying. Indeed, their closely observed movements, particularly those of Koro the bear and Chiro the squirrel, appear to be dry runs for Takahata's wonderful Goshu the Cellist.
Horusu: Prince of the Sun is a triumph of animation filmmaking, an epic adventure with a socially conscious heart. Unfortunately for Takahata, the film failed to set the box office alight despite the artistry on show, although it has since been seen as pivotal in the history of cel animation as an art form. Toei's initial reaction was to castigate its staff for wasting their time and money. Facing a more restrictive future, Takahata, Miyazaki and Otsuka eventually left the studio.
Panda Kopanda (1972) & Panda Kopanda: Amefuri Saakasu no Maki (1973)
Directed by: Takahata Isao
Written by: Miyazaki Hayao
Excerpted from Studio Ghibli by Colin Odell, Michelle Le Blanc. Copyright © 2015 Colin Odell and Michelle Le Blanc. Excerpted by permission of Oldcastle Books.
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