The tangled and vibrant exuberance of Miyazaki’s world are clear, waves of a surreal ocean washing over the audience. But water in moments of stillness, provides a reflective surface too; a mirror we can stare into, wash ourselves with. Isao Takahata’s Ghibli filmography is not drenched in dynamic surrealism which excites the imagination in fantasy. He uses the richness of the animated medium to create a lower-key of intimacy with the fabrics of the stories he adapts. Here in Takahata’s pools, the characters are enveloped by the gentle unfolding atmospheres, tones and moods which echo throughout impressionistic environments. Clouds of memory drenched in the fog of forgetfulness, flights of imaginative fancy, daydreams lurking in melancholy wishes; the reflectiveness of Takahata’s surfaces pull us into the nature of our imaginations when they relate to the reality of the world around us.
The characters which rise through these surfaces, swimming along its canals are ones which are pure of heart, at least in their intentions. The concerns they face might be deeply personal, such as Taeko’s gentle manoeuvring through her own half-faded memories as she walks a path of re-discovery as to who she is and who she wants to be in Only Yesterday. In an even more impressionistic and incomplete space, we see the family of My Neighbors the Yamadas navigate the intimate familial push-and-pull of existence, as the relationships of the family are knotted together through the experience of the world around them in a series of haiku-style vignettes. Their personal events become spaces for interaction, for reflection and growth of the oldest and deepest kind, as kids, parents and grandparents all move through space and time.
Or perhaps the characters face a more deeply embedded external issue. Seita’s turmoil and exile from the world around him in Grave of the Fireflies, which leads to some of the starkest and most painful consequences depicted in animation, is rooted in the uncaring and unmoved society which surrounds him. A supposedly civilised and right world which allows him and his sister to slip through its’ cracks. In Pom Poko, a whole range of external issues submerge the tanuki as their forest home comes under the threat of redevelopment. With only an ominous and impending danger the group is awash with inter-personal conflicts; debates and motivations which pulls their minds and their bodies in different directions, all the while the pressures of the human world closing off their space, their time. Choosing to stay distant from any one perspective, the events and characters of Pom Poko are viewed through a prism of viewpoints, allowing the audience to understand the events as they affect the world on a macro-level, beyond the micro-personal events of his other works.
Isao Takahata was Studio Ghibli’s wildcard, a man developing new structures of expression and animation which infuriated even his own Studio. Growing bored of cel-animation (the image Ghibli has managed to help transport across the world), his development of an impressionistic incompleteness in the animation of his work threw the Ghibli production process into chaos. So much so, that after work finished on My Neighbors the Yamadas, Miyazaki upon returning to the upheaval declared that Takahata “would never again make a film at Ghibli”. His character and story structure has always deftly sidestepped more obvious concerns, continually refocusing on gentle and intimate moments of expression which culminate in resonating moments uninterested in forced plot or character development which pulse throughout modern filmmaking. For Takahata, to see the world was enough, and the artwork he made reflected a sense of patience and time that is hard to understand, but important to have been exposed to.
And in his long-gestating and long-awaited final film, The Tale of Princess Kaguya, all of these concerns and experiences culminate in a film which turns even the ideas of Japanese animation on its’ head, ideas he helped to formalise with the very studio he founded. The lines of the film are wild and rough, the impressions of the world fade into beautiful watercolour dreamscapes which stream through your mind. It swirls with a sketched immediacy, unconcerned with the precise perfection of traditional cel-drawn animation. Kaguya’s compassionate expressions portray a personal conflict rooted in an anguish, a longing for a past never to be recovered. While her very existence in the world of medieval Japan is a catalyst for a plethora of societal issues: her nature as a princess, as a growing woman, as a lost child, a mythical being. Her human condition is unravelled to us as a tale of beautiful magnificence, and heart-breaking tragedy. The same can be said about the works of Isao Takahata.
I don’t mean to denigrate the other works of the Studio by addressing them here as a singular grouping, but rather just for the sake of structure and clarity. Here in the realms of Tomomi Mochizuki, Yoshifumi Kondō, Hiroyuki Morita, Gorō Miyazaki & Hiromasa Yonebayashi, we see the worlds of Ghibli expand beyond the auteur visions of the studio’s founders. And here it is important to talk about the cost of that expansion. Animation demands an almost overwhelming surrender to its’ creation, to continually conjure a world which does not exist beyond the frames it is drawn on. That level of demand, of engaged precision must take a tremendous toll on any animator, any director. To direct an actor is a taxing job in itself, but to constantly render that actor to life in every detail of their design even through a team, is a task which must seem relentlessly tough as these films can have be made of over a hundred thousand storyboards (to give examples, Gorō Miyazaki’s From Up On Poppy Hill contains over 70,000, while his father’s Ponyo contains over 170,000).
Animation is a brutally time and energy consuming process, and the effects on the creators themselves can be hard. The production of Ocean Waves, a television feature whose ethic was to design at a much faster rate, still ran considerably over budget and over schedule taking a serious toll on those who designed it. Yoshifumi Kondō, who had spent considerable time working in Ghibli films as a key animator and character design staff, died from an aneurysm at 47 brought on from overwork, as the toll taken on his health finishing production on his directorial debut Whisper of the Heart and his work on Princess Mononoke proved to be too much to bear. In a different side to animation’s personal cost, Gorō’s fractured relationship with his father has been well documented, as both have spent their lives dealing with the consequences of an artistic industry and process which demands nothing short of total absorption. Besides the familial and intricate personal consequences of Gorō’s childhood and subsequent adult life, their own artistic shadows and ambitions have led to serious production issues during the making of his two features under Ghibli’s umbrella.
Even though this post is more concerned with the artistic expressions finalised in their feature forms, it is important to give respect and understand the consequences of the creation of these works. In animation it is even easier to hide the human cost of these productions, as the work is built into its’ own inseparable reality. The directors’ name shrouds hundreds of staff in the invisible shadows of the work; animators, colourists, technicians and design engineers. This is true of regular filmmaking also, but when there is no physical reality to connect to it can often be harder to see.
What can be said about these works is that the spirit of Ghibli burns as brightly through their veins, even as their visions shift from the autocratic eyes of the animators who created the production studio. Hayao Miyazaki wrote the scripts for both Whisper of the Heart and From Up On Poppy Hill, but both films have a uniqueness about them that goes beyond his work, as Kondō and Miyazaki Jr’s own auteurist visions develop throughout. Ocean Waves shirks off the shroud of the surreal that would later define the studio, a tale of simpler fragile hearts caught in a love triangle at school. Yonebayashi, now at work in his own Studio (Studio Ponoc), developed a duo of films concerned with the same intricate themes often expressed in the founders’ work; the innocence of childhood, the memories and transformation of environments, the fantastical dangers of a fantasy world. But they are also films which express those themes in subtly different ways, highlight subtly different and unique visions of those same ideas.
It is both a blessing and a curse that these films live in the shadow of Ghibli’s two mythical animators. Like Haru in The Cat Returns, there is a double-edged nature to even the gifts and good things in the world. These films will always be judged against the towering filmographies of the studio’s founders, because they have been the one’s to establish that identity, an identity which even they can’t agree on. Miyazaki semi-seriously dismisses Takahata’s work in The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness, calling it “foolish”. Takahata grew so bored with the Studio’s animating style that he set fire to previous working methods, throwing the studio into chaos through uconventional and painfully slow production processes. The directors working under the Ghibli umbrella have found their own way, perhaps with sometimes less assured footing, to carve their own paths through the gauntlet of the animating process, and they deserve to be commended for it.
What’s even more special is that every one of these films has heights of animation and vision which do more to mesmerise you than most modern filmmaking can achieve. Little gems of artistic perception which glisten in your mind’s eye. The Cat Returns has the moment where Haru and Muta are caught by a spiralling whirlwind of crows. Arietty’s grappling hook excursions through the kitchen carry a beautiful range of emotions associated with adventure. Tales from Earthsea, long derided as unworthy of appreciation, has an existentially mature tone which falls into uncharted territory for most of the Studio’s work. When Marnie Was There has a darkly haunting sequence involving a silo that still haunts my memory. These films, even at their weaker moments still express visions of the world which truly excite the imagination, which use animation to inspire moments of artistic alchemy and to allow entrance to the gates of magic in a way that physical reality-based filmmaking hardly ever crosses through.
In an interview in 2002 regarding Spirited Away, Hayao Miyazaki expounded on the concept of “ma”, the moments of visible emptiness before an event or happening, using the time before a clap as an example. This philosophy is embedded into his own works, moments of happening which are like connecting tissue between the skin of his films. They aren’t structural story devices or cogs in a fictional machine, they’re moments where the characters simply exist in the present, to be. This whole experience of working through the Studio’s artworks, has allowed these moments of ma to flourish in a world currently off-kilter and violently oversaturated with media noise. The first time in my life I saw My Neighbour Totoro, it astounded me how a film could be so interesting while having so little happening, and that feeling has only compounded with each new Ghibli perspective I’ve encountered.
The moments of ma have resounded and echoed throughout these months of research and writing in a way that has allowed me to see the world in a way which animators do, as a place filled with a timeless shifting nexus of dreams, played out on a canvas of the world. You can dive into any of these works, and find those invisible resonances. In Only Yesterday, there’s this captivating moment where the whole family gather round to gently prepare and enjoy a pineapple in a quiet silence. There’s nothing overtly said or expressed, but the whole scene has a quiet and moving joy in its’ frames, in its’ heart, that speaks volumes to what those at Ghibli want us to see.
They want us to see life, and they want to see those living it.