Isao Takahata brings a more experimental angle to Ghibli. Not to diminish Hayao Miyazaki – He produced so much, you can’t expect him to not be more inconsistent, but seeing as he's directed so many films, you do see more of a formula emerge. Takahata goes outside the usual remit. You wouldn't get Pixar making the films he makes. I’ll be focusing on a few of his films today.
Grave of the Fireflies
Set in Japan during World War 2, we see the struggles teenage boy Seita and his child sister Setsuko. From the opening you know the two of them are going to die by the end of the film, so you can expect it to be going to be tough going. It’s not a war film about soldiers but about the struggles it puts on civilians and the callousness of adults that develops because of it. In spite of all the tragedy there are moments of levity to the film. But it doesn’t pull any punches about the horrors of war. The film was released as a double feature alongside Totoro at the time, which seems incredible. Though there’s nothing in particular about the film that is something children shouldn’t see, but we understandably want to shelter children from these things in films because we don’t want to upset them. It was a relief to read that they’d play this one first and then Totoro second. You’d at least get a charming, benign world afterwards to contrast with the traumatising, devastation of Grave of the Fireflies. So it’s an important film to see, there are moments of beauty within the film, but definitely one you have to be in the right frame of mind to see.
Only Yesterday tells the story of Taeko - a woman in her mid to late twenties, she’s lived in Tokyo her whole life, works in an office, but spends a holiday in the countryside working on a family’s organic farm. Throughout the film she remembers incidents from her life when she was 10 years old. It’s one that of all the Ghibli films could be the closest to being applied to my own life. It’s not an age group we usually see depicted. Looking at the conflict between rural and city life, and whether you’ve followed the path you wanted in your child. It’s a film that beautifully evokes childhood. I sometimes found myself having to pause and rewind the film as I suddenly realized I’d been just thinking about incidents from school, rather than paying attention. Next to Ocean Waves it’s the most realistic, and staid of all the Ghibli films. Not that I’m suggesting it’s boring because of this, a scene of ten year old Taeko and her family trying a pineapple for the first time is incredibly endearing. So it combines the beauty of countryside depictions, childhood and the small details of human interaction. It takes a very realistic story that could arguably be better performed in live-action but makes it work much better for the medium.
This film probably isn’t quite what you’d expect from any images you’d see of it. A group of Japanese animals called the Tanuki. It translates as Raccoon Dogs although in the film this is simplified to just Raccoons. It was only through reading that I realized quite a bit of the film is based on Japanese folklore about the creatures. You’ll get by without knowing this, but there are moments where you might find yourself thinking “there’s a reference I’m not getting here.”
From the look of the film, it would almost appear to be a Disney or Dreamworks esque wacky adventure about talking animals. And well it kind of is in a way, but I wasn’t expecting it to have such a wry sense of humour. It’s easily the funniest Ghibli film. The plot is driven by the fact forests are being cleared in Tokyo and so the racoons have to find ways to fight back, in their desperation, they discover that many of them have shapeshifting abilities, to the extent that many of them can disguise themselves as human, and go to the city to bring back food. The humour slows down as it becomes more of a nature vs. man story that is typical of Ghibli, though it plays out through a different angle. Again it’s a something a child could probably enjoy but it’s a little more mature in some it’s humour. There are some fairly dark jokes where people die along the way. It reminds me of Arrested Development at times in the ways it uses the narrator to comment on things on-screen. There’s also the matter of the Tanuki testicles. The creatures are well known in Japan for their large testicles (yes) they aren’t mentioned in any kind of sexualized way and in the English translation they refer to them as pouches. Just so you know. (As if anyone was looking at this blog for that kind of advice.)